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Planners reject Deer Creek study


Concerns over the long-awaited Rainier Avenue interchange and freeway undercrossing caused the planning commission to reject the final environmental impact report for Deer Creek Village on Tuesday night.

In a meeting that lasted almost five hours, commissioners discussed a range of concerns raised in the first round of environmental review, like traffic delays, flooding potential and noise.

But when the commissioners decided in a 5-1 vote not to recommend that the City Council approve the report, it was issues with Rainier that they said made the report deficient.

In particular, commissioners said the report didn't consider whether the Highway 101 interchange would be built in a "reasonably forseeable timeframe," as some say it won't due to a lack of funding.

They also said the report should have studied what the impacts to traffic would be if only the cross-town connector, or underpass connecting east and west Petaluma, was built, and not the full interchange.

Those costly projects would be partially funded through redevelopment money, but that money is expected to go away due to the state Supreme Court's recent decision that California can eliminate its redevelopment agencies. $7.3 million is currently set aside to begin work on the cross-town connector, but that is just a fraction of the amount needed to complete the connector or the full interchange project.

Gabe Kearney, the new council liaison to the commission, was the only one to cast a dissenting vote. He questioned denying the report based on speculation that the Rainier project might not happen, when other projects have been approved on the expectation that Rainier would be built.

The Rainier interchange and cross-town connector was included in the general plan decades ago. Kearney also pointed out that the city's General Plan still calls for the Rainier Project, and that the commission's job was to ensure that the report was in line with the general plan.

Assistant City Attorney Leslie Thomsen also suggested that commissioners not base their decision on speculation over funding for Rainier.

The developers, Merlone Geier Partners, still believe the report is adequate, said spokesman Marko Mlikotin, adding that city staff had recommended the report be approved.

"We are certainly disappointed that the planning commission denied a project that creates 800 jobs and has broad-based community support," he said Wednesday morning.

The proposed 344,000 square foot development between McDowell Boulevard and Highway 101 would feature a home improvement store, other major retailers, restaurants, office space, and a fitness center, among other things.

The developers have yet to say which tenants would fill the new storefronts, though the environmental impact report calls for a home improvement store. A poll commissioned by developer indicated that the community sees a need for such a store.

Merlone Geier Partners is currently in negotiations with two tenants — Friedman's Home Improvement and The Home Depot — to fill the void left by Lowe's Home Improvement. Lowe's had long been expected to fill the primary retail space in the development, but announced this fall that it was pulling out of the project.

The architects at Tuesday's meeting talked extensively about benefits of the project, like open space, a dog park, and "improvements" to Deer Creek itself. Deer Creek is the body of water, described in the report as a "swale," that runs through the property.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Onita Pellegrini spoke in favor of the project, saying "it would bring much-needed jobs back to the area."

Meanwhile, opponents of the project argued that their concerns over traffic, flooding and other impacts hadn't been properly addressed in the final version of the report.

"Given the years of serious complaints about traffic congestion in Petaluma, it is unconscionable that this Final EIR has no calculations for what will happen to our city streets if there is a successful Deer Creek Mall project but with no Rainier," wrote former city councilmember David Keller, who has long opposed the project.

No date is set yet for the project to come before the City Council, but Deputy Planning Manager Heather Hines previously said it will be scheduled for "the next available agenda" after the planning commission made recommendations.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com)