A much-anticipated hearing for the Deer Creek Village shopping center was postponed on Monday until April 2 after a flood of last-minute objections poured in, most notably from former City Council member Janice Cader-Thompson, former Mayor Pam Torliatt, and a neighborhood group that has long opposed the project.

The Council was set to vote on whether or not to approve the large development's Environmental Impact Report, and rows of chairs had been set out in anticipation of a huge turnout of supporters and opponents coming to weigh in.

The developer, Merlone Geier Partners, recently announced that the local home improvement store Friedman's had signed a long-term lease with them, galvanizing community interest in the project.

But the large volume of letters that arrived within the last week caused City Attorney Eric Danly to advise the council not to vote on the EIR until staff had a chance to read through them all and respond.

That prompted the developer to ask that the hearing be delayed.

"If a vote wasn't going to be held, we preferred for the entire hearing to be moved," said Marko Mlikotin, a spokesman for the project.

"We're disappointed, but we fully understand," said David Proctor, chief financial officer for Friedman's, saying it was important for the City attorney to have time to review the legal questions raised.

Among the correspondences that gave the city pause were a Feb. 24 letter from a lawyer representing former Council Member Janice Cader-Thompson, Gerald Thompson and the Park Place Neighborhood Association, and another by former Mayor Pam Torliatt, submitted on Monday.

These came in addition to a Feb. 17 letter from lawyers representing the Petaluma Neighborhood Association. That group received $100,000 as part of a 2010 city-approved settlement requiring them to stop opposing another large development, the Target-based East Washington Place shopping center.

Each letter raised concerns over traffic impacts and questioned the feasibility of the long-awaited Rainier Avenue connector and interchange, which the city has been trying to build for many years.

The Rainier Avenue connector has long been planned to link east and west Petaluma by extending Rainier Avenue under Highway 101. An interchange with Highway 101 would provide further relief to congested city streets.

The city's general plan calls for both the connector and the interchange to be built by 2025 in order to provide that traffic relief.

The Deer Creek EIR considers many traffic scenarios, including a "cumulative" option where traffic impacts of all the development planned to be completed by 2025 are mitigated, in part, by the Rainier connector and interchange.

But the objecting parties question whether the interchange would have the necessary funding to be built within that time frame.

The Planning Commission raised similar concerns about Rainier when it recommended that the Council not approve the project.

The objecting parties pointed to recent developments that they say have compromised the feasibility of Rainier: redevelopment funds drying up, the city's plan to possibly lower development fees that would help fund Rainier, and an apparent lack of support from Caltrans, among other things.

Without the Rainier interchange, they say, traffic congestion would increase to unacceptable levels that are out of step with the goals in the general plan.

City Attorney Eric Danly said he saw some "inaccuracies and mischaracterizations" in the letters the city received, but acknowledged that the city's legal and planning staff will have to work "diligently" in the next month to respond to the concerns that have been raised.

Heather Hines, the City's deputy planning manager, explained that Deer Creek's traffic scenarios include the Rainier interchange because it is called for in the general plan. In fact, the city plans to collect about $6 million from the developer to help fund traffic improvement projects, including Rainier.

But, she said, the staff will use the next month to look at the opponents' claims and respond to them.

Brigit Barnes, attorney for Janice Cader-Thompson and the Park Place Neighborhood Association, has suggested the City consider an alternative, which would be to build the development to only 75 percent of its currently proposed size.

Cader-Thompson lives near the proposed development and has opposed the project for several years. But, she said she supports a Friedman's coming to town in a smaller-scale project. At Monday's meeting, she offered to work with the city.

"Hopefully we can work together and get it done," she said.

Torliatt also says she has long supported Friedman's returning to Petaluma and continues to do so.

The developer, meanwhile, maintains that the EIR is sound and should be approved.

"This project has been vetted extensively," said Mlikotin. "It's well-designed and it reflects the input of the community. It's a very defensible document should it be challenged in court."

Proctor said he wasn't too surprised that the EIR was facing opposition. "It's Petaluma, it's what happens," he said, referring to the drawn out process that other projects, like the Target center, have gone through to be approved.

He said that the company still hopes to break ground this summer and be open for business in the summer of 2013.

The hearing for the EIR has been rescheduled for Monday, April 2. It will start at 6 p.m. instead of the usual 7 p.m., to allow for what is expected to be a large amount of public input.

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