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.