Dutra asphalt plant redux

Petaluma's most contentious land use battle of the new millennium appears to have come to an end following an appellate court decision Friday stating that the County Board of Supervisors' 2010 approval of the Dutra asphalt plant near the city's southern boundary was done properly and violated no laws. The three-judge panel's ruling was unanimous, meaning there is little chance of a successful Supreme Court appeal.

Construction of the controversial facility, to be located between Highway 101 and the Petaluma River near Shollenberger Park, is expected to begin shortly. According to company spokesperson Aimi Dutra, the new plant should be producing asphalt for local road projects by early next year.

The court's ruling was a huge disappointment to thousands of Petaluma residents who had signed petitions urging city leaders to fight the project, leading to an unprecedented and costly legal dispute between the City of Petaluma and the larger county government.

The main problem with the Dutra project has always been its location. It's hard to argue, after all, that the plant's twin 62-foot silos will be an appealing view for motorists entering Petaluma from the south. Nor could Shollenberger Park visitors be expected to enjoy the sight and sounds of the plant while walking, jogging or bicycling on the park's scenic trail alongside the river.

Notwithstanding the fact that similar industrial uses on and near the property are a matter of historical record, most city residents were clearly in opposition. So the city responded by filing a lawsuit challenging the project's approval.

But in the end, there was no legitimate legal reason to overturn the county's decision. By the time the final court ruling was announced last week, the city had spent $85,000 in legal fees to stop what many here believe will become a noisy, dusty and unhealthy eyesore near a beloved city park brimming with flora and fauna.

It's ironic, really, that for 20 years, Dutra Materials operated an asphalt plant here at the far south end of town while generating exceptionally few complaints. Being that the plant was hidden inside a rock quarry up on a hill, most Petalumans were completely unaware that it even existed.

Yet during that time, when Petaluma had its own local source of asphalt for road projects, the cost of completing local street repairs was lower due to not having to truck materials in from another city. This also reduced greenhouse gas emissions by negating the need to continually import asphalt from afar using diesel-fueled trucks.

Also, because Dutra regularly ferried raw materials up the river to its plant via tugboat and barge, its existence here also helped ensure that the river was regularly dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers so that boats and other watercraft could access the waterway to and from San Pablo Bay.

The new plant will offer similar benefits to the city, though there will be a three-year delay in the use of the river for transporting raw materials.

Now that the legal fighting is put to rest, Petaluma residents can only hope that plant operators -- in addition to assiduously adhering to all federal, state, and local regulations protecting the environment and public health and safety -- will also do their best to limit the visual and noise impacts of the project. That means going above and beyond the required landscaping and sound mitigation mandates specified by the county, and seeking new and innovative ways to make the plant a model industrial neighbor.