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More review required for Petaluma housing project

Petaluma officials Monday put the brakes on a contentious proposal for luxury homes in west Petaluma, a move that local environmental advocates claimed as a victory in a 13-year quest to preserve the land as open space.

The developer, Walnut Creek-based Davidon Homes, vows to push forward with plans to build as many as 66 single family homes on a 58-acre parcel at Windsor and D streets, adjacent to Helen Putnam Regional Park.

After a five-hour discussion tinged with impassioned testimony from residents and opposition groups, the city council voted unanimously to deem the current draft environmental impact report inadequate. Following the council’s direction, the report outlining the impacts and mitigating measures associated with the development will be revised to incorporate a variety of comments, recirculated and subject to another round of public hearings.

Rather than opt to move forward with the preparation of a final EIR, the council laid out a number of concerns and comments to be included in the revised draft, including issues with traffic studies, requested general plan amendments, impacts of downstream flooding and on the threatened California red-legged frog.

Among other issues, the council voiced concern about building south of a creek on the property, and asked for a bolstered analysis of its preferred 28-home option as well as an effort to elicit more input from regional agencies.

Vice Mayor Teresa Barrett, who served on the city’s planning commission for nearly a decade, said she’s “always been disappointed” by the final reports, which she said often don’t properly respond to concerns raised through the process.

“If we really want to get to the problem that the mitigations are not sufficient, it needs to be recirculated, not just go forward to a final,” she said. “My problem ... is that almost constantly through every one of these mitigations, they’re too general and they’re not specific enough.”

Councilman Gabe Kearney also expressed dissatisfaction with the report.

“I do have serious concerns about our level of biological study on the frogs and the species on the site, I don’t feel that enough evidence for me has been presented that an adequate study of that has been done,” Kearney said. “I do have concerns anytime federal or state agencies don’t provide input, because they more often than not provide input when we don’t want them to. A stronger effort needs to be done to reach out to them to get feedback.”

Steve Abbs, Davidon Homes’ vice president of land acquisition and development, slammed the council’s decision and said the company doesn’t plan to tailor its current application.

“The council has a complete misunderstanding of the California Environmental Quality Act,” he said.

Monday’s meeting was part of a larger battle over the project, which was first proposed in 2004, when the developer submitted an application for 93 homes.

After a draft EIR presented in 2013 was widely scorned, Davidon Homes submitted new plans with options for 66 or 63 homes. A revised draft EIR discussing the impacts of that proposal and alternatives with 47 homes or 28 homes was released this March and subject to planning commission scrutiny at an April meeting.

Activists contend the project would congest traffic and increase the risk of landslides and pollution while jeopardizing barns on the property and harming Kelly Creek and sensitive wildlife.

An estimated 200 people overflowed from the council chambers Monday, wielding signs and fiery words. A San Francisco-based law firm also submitted a 78-page letter to the city blasting the draft EIR.

“If Davidon wants to pave paradise, it’s going to be a grueling process, not just tonight, but for years after,” said resident Barry Bussewitz.

The proposal even drew the ire of 9-year-old Andreas Morris.

“I love Petaluma the way it is,” he said. “All the hills are beautiful and it would just ruin everything if Davidon builds all these houses and cuts down the trees. When I have kids, I want them to be able to come here to play and be able to see all the hills instead of having to look at a bunch of houses.”

Greg Colvin, director of the Kelly Creek Protection Project that’s among the lead opposition groups, praised the council’s decision. He raised $4 million to purchase part of the land as an extension of the nearby county park, and a meeting with Davidon Homes to discuss the issue is set for the coming weeks, he said.

“It’s a victory and a giant step forward for the Petaluma community to have a unanimous vote of the city council in favor of a greatly diminished housing development,” Colvin said.

Susan Jaderstom, the communications director for Petalumans for Responsible Planning, said her group is looking forward to the opportunity to weigh in again.

“We are gratified that the council listened to the public and their concerns about this land,” she said. “We are supportive of reviewing another DEIR that includes updated studies which can give the public a clear idea of the environmental constraints of this land.”

There’s no set time line for the revision and recirculation process for the document, according to Senior Planner Alicia Giudice. The draft report would once again be subject to approvals at public hearings before the planning commission and city council before a final EIR is considered, along with site plans and other entitlements.

Mayor David Glass was recused from the discussion, a legal requirement because he lives near the proposed development.