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Petaluma housing development moves forward despite concerns

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The 14-year-old Sid Commons, one of the largest proposed residential projects in Petaluma, continued its slow crawl toward approval thanks to a split city council vote on the development’s preliminary environmental report after a lengthy meeting Monday night at City Hall.

Residents near the project site, located on 15 acres at the terminus of Graylawn Avenue between the train tracks and Oak Creek Apartments and just south of the Petaluma River, trumpeted trepidations for a draft environmental impact study they felt came up short on traffic analysis and mitigating the potential harm to the area’s hard-fought flood protections.

The council echoed those concerns to the developer, J. Cyril Johnson Investment Corp., and city staff. On a 3-2 vote, with council members Gabe Kearney and Chris Albertson absent, the council allowed preparation of the final environmental impact report to begin contingent on an updated traffic study of Payran Street, which has steadily become a main thoroughfare, connecting Petaluma Boulevard North and East Washington Street.

“People use it to avoid East Washington and Petaluma Boulevard and they use it to get to the north end of the boulevard,” said councilwoman Kathy Miller. “There’s quite a bit of traffic there … you sit for a long time.”

If the new traffic analysis uncovers impacts that were not forecast in the two previous studies – the most recent of which was conducted in 2015 – that could trigger more delays and deliver a major blow to an already prolonged timeline.

For Councilwoman Teresa Barrett, who cast one of the two dissenting votes along with Mayor David Glass, the project was too ambitious in scale, originally seeking 278 multi-family units stacked in three-story buildings. Of the 19 housing projects Petaluma currently has in the pipeline, Sid Commons is the largest.

“I think that the problem with this environmental impact report is very clear, that the project it is trying to support is too dense for this site,” Barrett said.

Sid Commons will likely have to proceed without the proposed at-grade train track crossing for Shasta Avenue that would have provided direct access to the complex and alleviate traffic funneling onto Graylawn.

In a letter to the city, SMART and the California Public Utilities Commission objected to an at-grade crossing at that location, and Councilman Mike Healy reinforced the intersection’s unlikelihood, adding the “chances of that happening are about zero.”

Operating without Shasta Avenue access was a key parameter for the alternative projects outlined in the report, which reduced the number of units to a fraction of the initial proposal – something multiple council members seemed open to.

“I think the volume of cars that would be generated by that full-size project is going to be too much and, if there’s not going to be alternate access, I do worry about (evacuations if there’s a natural disaster),” Miller said. “We have to balance the needs of this neighborhood with the need for more housing.”

Twenty-three residents spoke up during a lengthy public comment period. Almost all of the speakers were opposed to the project, expressing frustrations about the potential for exacerbating quality-of-life conditions that were already affected by the Payran cut through and spillover of parked cars from Oak Creek Apartments, also owned by Johnson Investment Corp.

Many residents said the changes to the natural environment would cause irreparable harm to the wildlife that inhabits that stretch of the river.

“I strongly feel like the environmental impact on people, on animals, on traffic in that area, it’s too much,” said Lynn Terrell. “When they talk about terracing the river, where are the river otters going to go? Part of Petaluma’s river is urban, but this is a part of the river that’s still wild. There’s things there that are part of the earth. I’m not opposed to any housing there, but this is not the right development, at that scale, for this particular area.”

The developer, Mark Johnson, responded to the comment period suggesting townhomes and two-story buildings were something he was exploring with a new architect.

Glass said he was receptive to that idea, asking to see a project that added value to that area.

“I don’t know that zero (housing units) is the right answer, … but this is the most environmentally sensitive area that we have in the entire community. I think that’s the truth with all we’ve seen in play,” Glass said. “So while we need housing, we need to be sensitive to what’s happening in the picture.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)