Following the Petaluma City Council's approval of an environmental report on the Friedman's-anchored Deer Creek Village Shopping Center during an emotional, six-hour meeting on Monday, the developers say they hope to break ground on the long-delayed project this summer, but that a potential lawsuit or unanticipated problems with the project's design approval could delay those plans.

The Council approved the Environmental Impact Report for the development in a 4-3 vote, with Mike Healy, Mike Harris, Chris Alberston and Gabe Kearney voting to certify it. Vice Mayor Tiffany Renee, Teresa Barrett and Mayor David Glass voted to reject it.

While the EIR is considered the biggest step in the approval process, developer Merlone Geier Partners must clear one last hurdle - having the design and architecture plans approved by the Planning Commission. Merlone Geier Partners and Friedman's Home Improvement said that, assuming that process goes smoothly, they hope to have Friedman's open for business by the summer of 2013.

They recognized that their timeline could change if the design review process drags on. Also, a lawsuit by one of the neighborhood groups or individuals who found fault with the EIR could further delay the project's entitlement process, which was first initiated in 2008.

Opponents have worked with lawyers to submit comments criticizing the EIR, though neither group has said outright that it will take legal action.

Still, their concerns were part of what caused the developer to delay the original Feb. 27 hearing for the project. Those concerns focused on traffic, mainly related to the feasibility of the long-awaited Rainier Cross Town Connector being built as mitigation for traffic.

The City took more than a month to respond to those objections, but some were not satisfied by staff's response.

"What happened last night was exactly what we anticipated," said former Council Member Janice Cader-Thompson, whose lawyer, Brigit Barnes, submitted a letter criticizing the EIR on behalf of Cader-Thompson, her husband Gerald Thompson, and the Park Place Neighborhood Association. "It didn't address (our concerns about) flooding or traffic."

Cader-Thompson added that she is talking with Barnes about what actions to take next. Barnes has also represented Syers Properties, the group that owns the Plaza North Kmart shopping center.

When asked whether or not she would file a legal challenge to the EIR, Cader-Thompson declined to comment.

About 200 residents packed the council chambers and spilled out into the hallway at Monday's hearing, and several stood up to speak passionately about how they believe the project will negatively impact traffic, noise, and flooding, especially in the Payran neighborhood.

But roughly a two-to-one majority of the nearly 50 individuals who addressed the Council spoke with equal passion in support of the Deer Creek Village development, and particularly, Friedman's returning to town.

For those people, the issue boiled down to bringing a popular, local home improvement store back to town and generating tax dollars and jobs.

The developer estimates that the project will bring in about $1 million per year in sales and property tax revenue and create more than 800 new jobs.

"It's always been a family dream to come back" to Petaluma, said owner Bill Friedman, prompting applause from the crowd. He added that there were few other spaces left in Petaluma that would be big enough to hold a Friedman's.

"All of us were very pleased with the community support," said David Proctor, Friedman's chief financial officer, on Tuesday. "We've heard it for years, which is one of the reasons we want to return."

No date has been set for the Planning Commission to consider the project's design plan, but it's likely to be within the next few months.

Merlone Geier must submit revised site plans to the City to reflect the fact that the major tenant has changed from a Lowe's Home Improvement to Friedman's, Deputy Planning Director Heather Hines said, adding that the developer will likely need to make additional changes to reflect feedback that Council members gave at Monday's hearing.

"Everyone is anxious to move forward," said project spokesman Marko Mlikotin, adding that Merlone Geier hopes to bring revised plans to the City by the end of April.

A Planning Commission meeting will likely be scheduled shortly after City staff gets those revised plans, said Deputy Planning Director Heather Hines.

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