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A gift of $25,000 is hard to turn down, even if there are concerns about where it came from. One of $35,000 is even more enticing.

Friends of the Petaluma River has decided to accept $25,000 from developers of the controversial Friedman's-anchored Deer Creek Village shopping center.

It will also accept $10,000 that another group — Heritage Homes of Petaluma — rejected last week because it came as the result of a settlement forced by the Petaluma Neighborhood Association, which agreed to drop legal challenges to the project in exchange for concessions from developer Merlone Geier Partners.

The PNA has come under fire from some residents who decry what they see as a dangerous precedent that forces developers, after meeting all the city's planning requirements, to pay off private opposition groups to avoid costly lawsuits. Its two settlements also have included minor project modifications and changes to benefit nearby neighborhoods.

J.T. Wick, Friends of the Petaluma River board chairman, said his group "had a mix of praise and concerns for the contribution," but ultimately agreed to accept it because it was Merlone Geier's idea.

"They urged us to take it," he said.

Friends of the Petaluma River is a nonprofit group that is working to restore a historic livery stable on the McNear Peninsula and convert it into a River Heritage Center and museum. The city owns the building and the nonprofit group raises funds and manages the center.

"The (building) badly needs upgrading to make it through the winter; and we will source as much material as possible from Friedman's," Wick said, "so much of the money will go back to a tenant of the contributor."

The PNA, headed by Petaluma resident Paul Francis, secured a $191,000 settlement from Merlone Geier last month in an agreement that eliminated its legal challenge to the company's 36.5-acre, 345,000-square-foot retail and office complex along North McDowell Boulevard at Rainier Avenue.

The agreement called for Merlone Geier to pay $65,000 to three local causes offered by PNA: $30,000 to a city tree planting fund, $25,000 to the River Heritage Center and $10,000 to Heritage Homes.

Merlone Geier also agreed to pay $36,000 to the PNA's law firm and fund $110,000 in work to the Lynch Creek trail, traffic calming measures on Rushmore Avenue and pedestrian safety measures at Rainier Avenue and Maria Drive.

It was the second settlement won by the PNA in its challenges to large-scale developments in Petaluma. In 2010, the group agreed to drop a lawsuit against the city over the Target shopping center in exchange for $50,000 in legal fees and a $100,000 no-strings-attached payment to its two leaders.

Last week, Heritage Homes declined to accept money, in part because its board didn't want to be associated with negative connotations around the PNA settlements. Only one board member, Francis' wife, voted to accept the money. The couple's house also was on the recent Heritage Homes tour, causing some concern about why the group was selected for a financial gift.

After Heritage Homes declined the money, Merlone Geier Managing Director Greg Geertsen said he called Wick and encouraged the river group to accept the original $25,000 intended for them and the additional $10,000.

"We told them the money is coming from us and we hoped they would take the money and use it for the community," he said. "They were receptive to that."

Wick said the group will use the funds to pay for repairs to the 120-year-old barn, which suffers from significant termite and weather damage. Parts of one wall were damaged by wind this year, he said.

"Merlone Geier's contribution will be the first step in preserving the David Yearsley River Heritage Center for generations to come," he said.

Geertsen said the original agreement with the PNA will be amended.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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