Approval of a comprehensive development plan for the area around Petaluma's downtown Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit train station was derailed recently when the SMART board raised concerns over a proposed street linking riders to the downtown area.

City staff has been working with SMART on the plan in question for about two years. The plan outlines what development should look like around the future downtown SMART station and, among other things, calls for the creation of a street that would connect train riders to downtown Petaluma.

But in a letter to the City Council, the SMART board reminded the city that it owns the land on which the road would be built and cautioned that the ultimate use of the land would be up to the transit agency, essentially throwing into doubt the city's ability to build a road there.

This is the third time in 2013 that an interaction between SMART and the City of Petaluma or its residents has resulted in officials saying that the public entity "should have communicated better," as Petaluma's County Supervisor and SMART Board Member David Rabbitt said last week.

Earlier this year, SMART officials approved the use of eminent domain for several properties with private crossings on Landing Way in Petaluma, leading local officials to say that the agency should have better communicated its intentions to the residents. In January, SMART declined to purchase a property it had long indicated would be the site of a second, eastside Petaluma station, saying that it could not afford the land.

SMART's recent letter regarding the downtown station prompted council members to question why the agency's concerns couldn't have been raised earlier in the planning process. Councilwoman Teresa Barrett, who worked on the plan's Citizen Advisory Committee, said that she was surprised by SMART's last-minute communications.

"We had been meeting for two years, SMART representatives were at those meetings and SMART helped pay for the study," said Barrett. "At no time during the process did they say that any part of the plan was not acceptable."

"We know how important the plan is to the city, but we also know that SMART has the right to do something else," Joe Nemeth, SMART's planning manager, said at the May 6 City Council meeting. "There always remains the possibility that the two plans might not coincide."

Nemeth said the intent of the letter from SMART officials was to remind the city that suggestions would not necessarily be followed in their entirety on land owned by the agency. "We've had the experience of trying to develop the property at Railroad Square in Santa Rosa," said Nemeth. "(Santa Rosa) had a preferred concept for the area, but it turned out that developers submitted different plans that the public and the city actually liked more. You just never know what might come up."

But Scott Duiven, Petaluma's senior planner, cautioned that moving the connector street would hamper people's ability to get to the station from downtown, though he added that narrowing the street could be feasible. "But the overall placement is fundamental to this project succeeding," he said.

City officials also expressed concern that SMART might use the land to build a maintenance facility rather than the planned street. As a public entity, SMART could do so without approval from the city. While Nemeth assured the council that no such plans are currently in the works, he pointed out that future SMART boards could still choose to do so.

Rabbitt said that SMART's main concerns were about maintaining flexibility on a property that they own. He said they are not currently planning to build a maintenance facility or break the flow of the station to downtown.

"The communication was delivered awkwardly," said Rabbitt. "I know staff is very busy with a massive construction project, but we need to bring the entire community along with us and not have any issues arise along the way."

SMART's General Manager Farhad Mansourian referred all requests for comment to the organization's Community Outreach Coordinator Carolyn Glendening. When asked about SMART's plans for the property and why the agency's concerns weren't raised earlier, Glendening only replied:

"We are looking forward to continuing to work with the City of Petaluma as our partner as we participate in the city's planning process for this area."

SMART officials did not respond to further requests for clarification.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)