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Petaluma approves Safeway gas station

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The controversial Safeway gas station project for the Washington Square Shopping Center cleared the Petaluma Planning Commission by a narrow vote Tuesday, following a prolonged and combative meeting where tensions between the applicant, residents and commission members fluctuated throughout the night.

The project was approved, with numerous conditions attached, on a 4-3 vote, with all commissioners present and Scott Alonso, Heidi Bauer and Bill Wolpert dissenting.

“It’s not a warm and fuzzy feeling, but on the other hand, I am confident – with proper conditions – that this project can move forward,” said commission member Richard Marzo.

The project, which proposes a 16-pump gas station at the corner of Maria Drive and South McDowell Boulevard, has been a lightning rod for public debate since it was first put forward in 2014.

The overarching issue has been its proximity to the North Bay Children’s Center, Petaluma Child Development Center, McDowell Elementary School and McDowell Park, and the environmental, health and safety concerns that come with being across the street from an area where children spend hours outside each day.

The planning commission delayed a decision on May 8, citing inadequate notification procedures and poor community outreach, as well as apprehensions about the air quality and traffic data.

Tuesday night, commission members appeared reluctant to approve the project, and even blasted Safeway representatives for how they presented themselves. During the applicant’s initial remarks, lawyer Matthew Francois threatened the city with litigation if the project was denied, alleging city officials had violated state regulations with such an elongated approval process.

Later in the meeting, commissioner Diana Gomez addressed the notion of litigation.

“It’s beyond my belief that an attorney would do that,” she said. “That attitude set the tone for the evening.”

But in the end, the planning commission looked at the project’s merits and attached stipulations in addition to the 61 previously agreed upon conditions of approval. Among the new terms were pre-construction meetings with the public, provisions to reduce traffic increases on Maria Drive, signage to eliminate idling and contracting with a specialized construction company to handle the sensitivities of the project.

“I think Safeway has been a poor corporate citizen and just truly an awful neighbor to an elementary school that serves an almost exclusively minority population,” said vice mayor Mike Healy. “To come here and say the only possible place on this 12-acre site where their fueling station can go is the place that’s immediately adjacent to the elementary school — I’m very disappointed and I know the public’s disappointed. But I feel like my hands are tied on this.”

The May 8 meeting came after a flurry of action the week prior, and school officials sprang into action during one of the busiest times in the school year, hoping to form a strong defense. Petaluma City Schools commissioned a peer review of Safeway’s health risk assessment, and uncovered flaws in its methodology and inconsistencies with the California Air Resources Board’s land use guidance for protecting children.

Once the planning commission deferred their decision, they tasked Safeway with holding public forums to discuss the project with residents and, more importantly, to address the concerns raised by commissioners and school officials.

Safeway held meetings on June 19 and June 23, and appointed a local acoustical consultant, Illingworth & Rodkin, to respond to the school district’s peer review of the health risk assessment.

After that response, the school district relented, but remained firm on the need for additional traffic studies and better outreach since the public meetings were held during summer break.

“Our families are out of town, our principal is not here because she is out of town, and we don’t believe there has a true opportunity to give input and to truly express their concerns about this gas station that’s going in,” said the district’s chief business official Chris Thomas.

When the project was first proposed in 2014, Safeway pressed pause after the city council failed to pass a moratorium on gas station development in Petaluma.

Later that year, the city adjusted its method for calculating its Traffic Development Impact Fee, which Francois claimed was an attempt to shut the project down by deterring it with high costs. That adjustment resulted in a 14,000 percent hike for Safeway, jumping from $11,858 in fees to $1.7 million.

After reassessing the fee structure, the project was restarted in 2017 and the proposed mitigation declaration was green-lighted by Bay Area Air Quality Management District in November, paving the path back to City Hall.

The project would involve demolition of the commercial building in the southeast corner of the shopping center to accommodate the 16 pumps, one electric vehicle charging station and a 697-square foot convenience store. It would also include improvements to the nearby bus transit center and perimeter landscaping.

Safeway’s speedy return to the agenda last month, which was criticized by city and school officials, sparked discussions on how to improve noticing practices for major projects.

Last week, city council approved new procedures that would require applicants to notify all residents and businesses within a 1,000-foot radius of the project site and on-site posting at least 17 days before an upcoming public meeting. That could be extended to 30 days if an environmental document is associated with the city’s report.

In voting against the project, Wolpert said a discount gas station is not what Petaluma needs.

“Adding more gas stations to our community is not on any priority list,” Wolpert said. “Providing a discount gas station as an incentive to buy groceries is antithetical to the direction that our community and our state needs to go, and desires to go.”

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