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The developer of the Deer Creek Village project, Merlone Geier Partners, announced Monday afternoon that it had signed a long-term lease agreement with Friedman's, the Petaluma-grown home improvement store.

The announcement came just two weeks before an important city council hearing on the controversial development, and Friedman's, as a popular, home-grown store, is seen as a tenant that could possibly sway some opposition in favor of the development proposed for a 36 acre site between McDowell Blvd. and Highway 101.

"We are returning to our roots," said Bill Friedman, Chairman and CEO of Friedman's Home Improvement, in a press release. "This has been a longtime dream of all three generations. In fact, I grew up helping my father and Uncle Joe in the Petaluma store. It's very heartwarming to return to where we started our family business in 1946."

The project and its environmental impact report have received criticism from an anti big box group that sued over the Target-anchored Regency Centers development on East Washington Street that was approved by the city in 2010.

Last month, the Planning Commission voted to recommend against the Council approving the project's environmental impact report, stating concerns that the report should have considered how traffic would be affected if the long-awaited Rainier undercrossing isn't built.

Some believe the Rainier connector will not be built any time soon, as it is a costly project that still requires significant funding.

But it remained unclear after Monday's announcement if Friedman's joining the Deer Creek Project would lessen opposition now that a locally owned company, as opposed to a national chain, will be anchoring the development. Lowe's Home Improvement was expected to be the development's anchor store until last fall, when it pulled out, creating an opportunity for Friedman's to fill the spot.

Paul Francis, a leader of the Petaluma Neighborhood Association whose attorneys sent a letter challenging the draft environmental impact report, declined to comment on Tuesday.

Matt Maguire, another leader of the group, said he hadn't been as actively involved in opposing the Deer Creek Village project, though he added, "The Planning Commission had legitimate concerns." He said he hoped the issues could be resolved, because he's wanted to see a Friedman's in Petaluma for a long time.

That sentiment — support for a Friedman's in Petaluma but lingering concern over the impacts of the Deer Creek project — seemed common among those who have opposed the project's EIR.

"Traffic, noise and air quality is the issue, not what home improvement center comes to Petaluma," wrote former councilmember Janice Cader-Thompson, in an e-mail.

David Keller, another former member of the City Council who has called the EIR inadequate, said he hoped that Friedman's wasn't being used "as bait."

"There's very strong community support for a Friedman's; I will shop there any day of the week," he said. "But the question is, is this the right location, and will the traffic and flooding issues (at the Deer Creek site) still go unanswered by the city?"

A spokesman for the Deer Creek Project, Marko Mlikotin, said that the long-term lease represents a firm commitment to Friedman's being a part of the development. He also argued that the development is Friedman's best chance of returning to Petaluma.

Friedman's originated in Petaluma back in 1946, when brothers Benny and Joe founded it. The company left town in 1976 after its lease ran out, and shortly after, a fire destroyed the building it had occupied. Ironically, Benny Friedman once owned part of the land that Deer Creek Village is developing, said Friedman's Chief Financial Officer David Proctor in an earlier interview.

Friedman's currently has locations in Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Ukiah and has for many years been seeking a way to return to its roots for more than five years.

If the project is approved, Friedman's hopes to start construction this summer and be open for business next year.

The project's EIR is the focus of the city council meeting on Monday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. at city hall.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)