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Amid resident-led lawsuit, Safeway abandons gas station plans in Petaluma

Safeway is walking away from its embattled Petaluma gas station project after years of resident-led pushback, city officials and a Safeway representative have confirmed.

The decision marks a victory for opposition group NoGasHere, which has been locked in a nearly two-year legal battle with the grocery giant and the city of Petaluma over the project. And it comes on the heels of the city’s first-in-the-nation ban on new gas stations, which drew national attention after it was passed March 1.

Safeway spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall confirmed the company is abandoning the project in an emailed statement to the Argus-Courier last Friday, explaining that the company is choosing not to pursue renewed project approvals from the city after they lapsed earlier this month.

“We appreciate those who supported a new Safeway gas station at the Washington Square Shopping Center in Petaluma,” she said in the message. “The city’s approval of the project on April 1, 2019, was valid for two years, and the project approvals recently expired. The project has come to an end.”

The project has drawn heated opposition from Petaluma residents and some local business owners since the national chain unveiled its plans for the Washington Square addition in 2013, with NoGasHere leaders objecting over potential environmental impacts and increased traffic hazards.

The planning commission first approved the fueling center in June 2018, but a community-led coalition appealed the decision, and the city council in December 2018 voted to require more environmental review in a nod to resident demands.

Safeway challenged the decision, and in April 2019, the city council changed again course, voting to approve the project. A month later, in an effort to derail the project, NoGasHere filed a lawsuit against the city and grocery chain centered on environmental concerns.

Patrick Soluri, the attorney representing NoGasHere in its challenge, said he his team was contemplating its next move after learning of Safeway’s decision late Thursday night.

“This is a very positive development for the health and safety of the citizens of Petaluma,” Soluri said in an email Friday. “Having achieved a primary goal in the litigation, we are presently evaluating our next steps.”

However, the case is presently still active, and Soluri said his group is not yet in a position to withdraw the litigation, although city officials say the case should be dismissed..

“If the case is truly mooted, meaning there is no possibility Safeway could, in the future, propose a fuel station for that site, it would seem that dismissing the lawsuit as moot would be appropriate,” he said. “But I’m not sure yet.”

The news comes just a month after Petaluma became first city in the nation to ban gas station construction in an effort to curb greenhouse gas-emissions from the fossil fuel infrastructure. But the prohibition exempted the council-approved Safeway project, which was authorized before the new ordinance took effect.

Council member Brian Barnacle called the end of the Safeway project “icing on the cake” to the city’s recent ban on future gas stations.

“You just have to give credit where credit is due to the people that decided to fight this,” he said. “In the bigger picture of things, obviously, I don’t support new gas stations so I’m happy about this.”

Woody Hastings, co-coordinator of the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations, similarly called the controversial project’s demise a step forward in his group’s goal of ending new fossil fuel station construction.

“Petaluma absolutely really is a focus here, on having initiated the prohibition (on new gas stations) and now with this withdrawal of this gas station proposal,” he said Friday. “It’s likely there will never be a new gas station built in Petaluma ever again.”

Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.

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