Safeway gas station plans assessed

Safeway's controversial proposal to build a gas station alongside its South McDowell Boulevard store is moving along after a stop at the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee last week, where committee members approved revisions to the project's site design and made plans to analyze a traffic study slated to be released by August.

The fueling station, complete with eight double-sided pumps, was first proposed last summer and immediately sparked concerns over traffic and the impact of emission released from idling cars waiting for a turn at the pump.

Concerns only grew after the Petaluma City Council learned that they would not have authority over approving the project because it complies with the city's zoning ordinance. That led a few council members to make a failed attempt to pass a moratorium on gas stations in March, which would have halted the development and given the council more direct control over Safeway's project and any fueling stations proposed in the future.

After getting past that hurdle, Safeway representatives have continued to submit and resubmit studies and reports that aim to address the traffic and environmental concerns raised by city staff. The proposal will have to get a stamp of approval from the planning commission before returning to the city council for review.

"The project team is continuing to work with city staff to develop an acceptable application," Safeway spokesperson Wendy Gutshall wrote in an email.

At the transit advisory committee's June 26 meeting, Safeway representatives presented a new design that better incorporates the city's nearby transit center. A 5-foot bus turnout was added to improve visibility and allow three 40-foot buses to park with 10 feet of space between each. The turnout would require Safeway to construct new bus shelters, benches and sidewalks. The new design would comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act by making the sidewalks wider with a reduced slope, so it's easier for wheelchairs to navigate.

The committee passed a resolution stating that the new site design is sufficient with a 3-1 majority and two members absent.

However, committee members were anxious to examine Safeway's revised traffic analysis. Concerns were voiced that any blockage of the transit center, referred to as Petaluma's "major nexus for buses," could put a wrench in the city's entire transit system.

Safeway real estate agent Mary Davi said at the meeting that the upcoming traffic report will address concerns such as traffic circulation within the shopping center, bus parking and maneuvering, and the potential for congestion in the area. Davi said "Do not block" signage and pavement striping will be implemented, and Safeway employees, called patrolmen, would direct cars to keep traffic flowing. Petaluma's fueling station, she added, would be an improvement from other locations, such as Novato.

"In Novato, cars are lined up in the street, but that will not happen here," Davi said. "I can guarantee that."

Traffic congestion isn't the only concern for some residents and city officials, who claim that Safeway utilizes below market "predatory pricing" to drive other gas stations out of town. In the past, Safeway representatives have denied those allegations, but local gas station owners say the company's discount program allows Safeway to sell gas at a loss, which is compensated by increased grocery sales.

While the time line for the proposed gas station has not been released, Davi wrote in an email that an update will be available once Safeway's architect has had a chance to speak with the city about the transit advisory committee's decision.

(Contact Allison Jarrell at allison.jarrell@argus courier.com)