The City of Petaluma and a citizen coalition legally contesting the proposed Dutra asphalt plant across the Petaluma River from Shollenberger Park was dealt a blow this week when it received word that its suit had been denied by a Sonoma County Judge.
Earlier in December, project opponents had argued in court that the project was rushed through the County's approval process, violating open-meeting laws and without full consideration of the impacts on public health, air, water quality and public park land. They asked for injunctive relief that would prohibit development until the county complied with state laws.
But opponents say that Judge Ren?Chouteau dismissed all of their claims in his more than 30-page opinion. He issued his opinion on Dec. 23, but project opponents didn't receive word until several days later when the decision arrived in the mail.
"We are deeply disappointed in the judge's failure to protect our wetlands from industrial degradation," said Joan Cooper of Friends of Shollenberger on Wednedsay morning.
Meanwhile, Dutra Group spokesperson Aimi Dutra said the company was pleased that the court upheld the County's decision to approve the project.
"This project has taken 7 years to get approved, and we now can focus on bringing back a local source of Asphalt to Petaluma and Southern Sonoma," she wrote in an e-mail to the Argus-Courier.
The judge's decision was the latest development in the multi-year effort by the Dutra Group to build an asphalt plant near the city's southern boundary that is strongly opposed by community groups, individuals and the City of Petaluma.
Early this year, the coalition filed suit to stop the highly controversial project which was approved last December in a 3-2 vote by the County Board of Supervisors.
Cooper issued a statement on Wednesday, along with David Keller of the Petaluma River Council, taking issue with many points in Chouteau's decision. They argued, among other things, that the judge mistakenly wrote off Shollenberger Park and the Upper Petaluma River as a blighted area, when it is widely considered a popular natural area.
Cooper said the coalition will now begin to consider possible next steps, such as possibly appealing the ruling.
"Our attorneys at Lozeau/Drury feel we have many legal issues that could find merit at a higher court. So far, we believe that this judge's decision should be overturned," she wrote in a statement issued Wednesday.
But Aimi Dutra wrote of the decision: "The Court's ruling clearly supports the fact that all environmental impacts have been addressed. Numerous changes were made to the project throughout this process to specifically address the concerns of the Community &#8211; this is the Right Plant, in the Right Place."
"I regret the decision, but I'm not surprised," said Mayor David Glass. He couldn't speak to what steps the city might consider taking, having just learned of the news.
"The judge's ruling may be legal, but that doesn't mean it was right," said Glass, adding that the county planners and the Board of Supervisors conducted the application process in a "regrettable" manner.
Despite the ruling, Glass said he didn't regret the city's participation in the lawsuit, describing a tremendous effort by volunteers and some small wins in the forms of mitigations to the project that might not otherwise have been accomplished.