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Petaluma’s Past: In 1975, officials were fighting for ‘The Limited Growth Plan’

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Nineteen-seventy-five was a vibrant year in Petaluma.

Topics of passionate public conversation included Mayor Helen Putnam and ”The Petaluma Plan,” a new library in town, river dredging, a housing agency, a redevelopment of downtown with The Great Petaluma Mill, “Christo’s Fence,” a fire at the Creamery, heightened interest in wrist-wrestling, and lots more. It was, in fact, a fairly active year for the world in general. The U.S. population was 243 million in 1975, the State of California contained 21 million people, and Petaluma’s population had just spiked to a whopping 26,000.

We were still a small town, but many were concerned we were growing too fast.

In the ’60s, Petaluma’s population had doubled by 10,000, and then, in the single year of 1970-1, it soared by another 5,000. Key worries were water supply, sewer capacity and over-crowded schools. Our Mayor, Helen Putnam, and the City Council had long been determined to control future growth here, and in 1973, the city had voted-in a revolutionary limited growth idea, a measure than won by a 4 to 1 margin.

It was a land mark decision, the first in the nation.

And it was angrily protested by the construction industry. They sued, and the city of Petaluma took the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where our plan was finally approved. The High Court stated in its decision, “The city is within its rights to preserve its small town character.”

In the following years, many cities in America adopted our innovative idea.

Petaluma’s huge Co-op Creamery burned to the ground that fall, in a fire that was one of the worst in our city’s history. An entire block on Western Avenue was lost. The Argus-Courier headline said it all. “BLAZE GUTS CREAMERY!” The story took-up the entire front page, with the loss estimated at over two million dollars. That important dairy-serving facility was rebuilt several years later.

The long awaited new library on Washington and Payran began construction in ’75, replacing the too-small Carnegie Library on the corner of Kentucky and B Street. The new library was to be built on the site of our Little League Baseball field, but, not to fret. The L.L. was moved to a better location, and the old library became our Petaluma Historical Library and Museum.

A big County-wide argument in ’75 was the subject of “Christo’s Fence,” and its possible impact on the affected ranchers. In March, the Board of Supervisors had approved that miles-long art project, which won by a 5 to 1 vote. But the chambers were packed with ranchers claiming, “If it isn’t illegal, it’s immoral!”

The fence was approved anyway.

The four big national stories of 1975 were the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s Watergate scandal, the Patti Hearst/SLA saga, and the attempted assassinations of President Gerald Ford.

Oh yes, and then there were the tantalizing stories of labor boss Jimmy Hoffa disappearing, boxer Muhammed Ali’s “Thrilla in Manila,” Great Britain voting to stay IN the European Union (It took another 41 years for them to change their minds), and California Governor Ronald Reagan hinting that he “might” be making a run for the Presidency.

In other news, “Jaws” was the movie of the year, although “One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest” was a close second. “Saturday Night Live” debuted on TV that year, with comedian George Carlin as its very first host. Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded something they would call “Microsoft,” Mr. Potato Head was the toy of the year, and the religious group known as Jehovah’s Witnesses declared that 1975 would definitely be “The year of Armageddon.”

Well, it almost was, as gas prices soared to 70 cents a gallon and the porn flick “Deep Throat” was (for months) brazenly advertised across the marquee of our Plaza Theater.

Despite all that, most of us were spared having to face the End of Days.

Another contentious issue in 1975’s Petaluma was the matter of smoking while in public meetings, which was declared unlawful, inspiring an Argus editorial to predict that we all might stop attending City Council meetings.

We didn’t.

That year, the Petaluma River was looking much as it does now, with an ugly mud island poking up in the turning basin. But finally, dredging began that fall. However, said dredging had only been approved IF the city could provide an area to dump the spoils.

We did.

Wrist wrestling was also big news that year, as Billy Jean King and Frank Gifford emceed the contests at our local Veteran’s Memorial Building, for NBC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Petaluma’s own Jim Dolcini won the heavyweight title for the 4th time.

Argus columnist Bill Soberanes became so excited he almost fell over in his chair.

Lastly, there was a mid-1975 announcement that the long abandoned, but still cherished, Baylis/ Wickersham/McNear/Hill Feed Mill, on the corner of Petaluma Blvd. and ‘B’ Street, was going to be revitalized into an indoor shopping mall. In an Argus interview, the developer pledged that the 1854 historical ambiance of the structure would be preserved as it was, the oldest standing building in town. He announced that the new project would be named “The Great Petaluma Mill.”

The following week, Don Bennett said in his column, “The river may be making a comeback and the Mill project will be a key feature of the river, and should become an attraction for tourists.”

The entire structure had to be first seismically reinforced, first, able to withstand a quake of at least 8.2 on the Richter Scale, a number .6 higher than the disastrous 1906 SF quake.

Later that year, it was announced the Mill project was to be expanded into the adjoining Von Raesfeld building, at the time housing The Chamber of Commerce, Hometown Realty, the ‘Bill Kortum for Supervisor’ office, and The Spa Bar and Grill. (That last space is now 24 Hour Fitness). Argus-Courier Editor Chris Samson commented, “This may very well make the 38,000 sq. ft. Great Petaluma Mill the cornerstone of revitalization for the entire downtown.”

And yes, the developer of the project was yours truly.

The year 1975 was my first year in Petaluma and the Mill restoration did, indeed, start a trend. Moving here was one of the most important decisions of my life. Thank you Bank of Marin (for the idea), City planners and council, my friend Helen Putnam, and last but not least, my readers of some 33 years of history’s back-stories.

I’ve been a lucky guy.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. He can be contacted at skipsommer@hotmail.com)