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Climate, development top Petaluma news in 2019

Like in 2017, the past year was again marked by natural disasters - fires, floods and power outages. In 2019, Petaluma again showed resiliency as a community, responding to these disasters by welcoming evacuees while lending a hand to stem the crisis.

But Petaluma this year also addressed the root cause of nature’s ire - climate change. From ranking climate change among the top of the Petaluma City Council’s goals to declaring a climate emergency, the issue was the top story in a busy year.

The year started with transition in Petaluma’s top leadership. Both the mayor and city manager’s seat changed hands at the beginning of the year as two new city council members took the dais. The Petaluma school board also saw a shakeup after last year’s election unseated three incumbents.

Controversial issues, never in short supply in Petaluma, came to a head at City Hall as battles were waged over gas stations, public art and development.

Meanwhile, major transportation projects like the SMART train, highway expansion, bike paths and river maintenance advanced to varying degrees.

The legal cannabis market gained a foothold in Petaluma as its acceptance increases. And, throughout the year, Petalumans excelled in the arts and sports, bringing glory to their hometown.

Here is a recap of the top 10 Petaluma stories of 2019:

1. Climate change

Petaluma leaders, with constituent input, identified early this year that climate change is a real threat to this low-lying city. Several climate marches, some youth-led, brought the national urgency home to Petaluma’s streets.

Tackling climate change was listed among the top city goals. Then, in May, the city council declared a climate emergency, raising the issue to the highest priority and marshaling resources of local government to analyze the city’s contribution to climate change with the goal of zero carbon emissions within 25 years.

“I have no problem with adopting a climate emergency resolution. Obviously I think there is a climate emergency,” Mayor Teresa Barret said at the time. “I do have a problem with thinking that that is enough, that by adopting a resolution we can give people the idea that we can check that box and move on.”

Later in the year the city formed a Climate Action Commission to study how the city’s actions contribute to climate change.

2. Natural disasters

Weather-related disasters this year showed that the consequences of climate change are having an affect on Petaluma now. A wet winter was capped off by a heavy rain in January that flooded several streets around the upper reaches of the Petaluma River.

But the real impact came in October after a hot, dry summer. PG&E, under pressure for causing the 2017 firestorm, preemptively cut power to thousands of Sonoma County residents, including many in east Petaluma, to prevent its equipment from starting another blaze.

The attempt proved to be futile, however, when a power line near Geyserville sparked a massive wildfire on Oct. 23. The Kincade fire ended up torching 77,000 acres and caused the largest evacuation in county history.

Petaluma, which was spared from the fire threat, again opened emergency shelters for evacuees.

“Remarkably, and then again not surprisingly, the evacuation went relatively well,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom on a tour of Petaluma shelters. “We have a lot of experience from 2017. Half the folks that are in this shelter were evacuated in 2017.”

Petaluma sent three engines and a crew of firefighters to help in the effort to protect homes in Windsor and Healdsburg.

3. Leadership change

The November 2018 election brought a significant change to the leadership at Petaluma City Hall. The beginning of 2019 saw the inauguration of two new city council members and a new mayor, all with strong progressive bona fides.

Teresa Barrett, who was a councilwoman, won the mayor’s race and was sworn in along with newcomers Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer and Councilman Kevin McDonnell. Councilman Dave King also won reelection.

Also stepping down at the end of last year was longtime City Manager John Brown.

Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun briefly took the reins until the city hired Peggy Flynn to lead Petaluma’s administration. Brodhun retired later in the year.

The former assistant city manager of Novato, Flynn went to work creating a strong public outreach campaign and making progress on several key development projects.

“My philosophy is we work for you. We work for residents and businesses here,” Flynn said at the time. “We need to have that two-way discussion. ... It’s government for the people and by the people.”

By year’s end, several other department heads would leave Petaluma, including Housing Administrator Sue Castellucci and Dan St. John, director of Public Works and Utilities, one of the largest city departments.

4. Controversial projects

A trio of hot-button issues over which Petaluma residents have fought heated battles in recent years - a bathtub art project, a Safeway gas station and Lafferty Ranch - cropped up again in 2019.

Vocal critics of the “Fine Balance” public art project proposed by artist Brian Goggin for Water Street appealed the Public Art Committee’s decision to move ahead with the installation featuring five Victorian-era bathtubs on stilts. The city council had the final say and opted to keep the piece on Water Street but also revisit the decision in 10 years. The year ended with the project on hold while the city conducts an environmental review of the project.

Meanwhile across town, opponents of a Safeway discount gas station proposed for McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive sued in May to block the project. They claim the project will harm the air quality in the area next to a school. Proponents welcome the prospect of cheaper gas.

The opponents won an early victory in the case in October when Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Arthur Wick rule that Safeway cannot break ground on the project until the court case is resolved, likely sometime in 2020.

A fierce battle over public access to the city-owned Lafferty Ranch property on Sonoma Mountain ended with a whimper in April when the city and Friends of Lafferty Park dropped a lawsuit seeking to compel neighbors to grant an easement at the property entrance. Instead, the city claimed abutter’s rights to an adjoining road and said the public should have had access all along.

“We believe the issue is now in the legal rear view mirror,” Councilman Mike Healy said at the time.

5. Development projects

Petaluma took small, incremental steps to address a housing shortage that is gripping the region. The city also approved new hotel developments in an effort to attract more tourists.

The most visible new Petaluma housing project, the 199-unit Brody Ranch on Sonoma Mountain Parkway, neared completion by the end of the year with almost all of the units ready for occupation. Work also started on the last phase of the Quarry Heights project in southwest Petaluma.

The city also approved an apartment building on Ellis Street, additions to one on East Washington Street, and the 178-unit Haystack Pacifica project downtown. The 92-unit Marina Crossing Apartments opened in June, but Sonoma State University bought the whole complex for staff housing.

Several other development proposals were in various stages of discussion throughout the year, including an affordable apartment complex on Petaluma Boulevard North and Oak Street; a 160-unit residential development at the site of the future Rainier crosstown connector; and a development next to the future Corona Road SMART station.

The Riverfront project, an approved housing development along the Petaluma River at Highway 101, remained stalled but a Marriott Hotel in the subdivision broke ground this year. The city also approved a Hilton Home 2 Suites on North McDowell Boulevard and discussed a downtown hotel.

6. Infrastructure projects

Big transportation projects on the river, roads and rails in and around Petaluma advanced this year.

Ground broke in October for a project to widen 3.3-miles of Highway 101 through Petaluma after the state funded the work earlier in the year. Once the project wraps up in three years it will include carpool lanes, sound walls and an underpass for the future Rainier Avenue extension.

Another Highway 101 widening project was completed in December, opening 4 miles of carpool lanes from the Petaluma River bridge to the Marin County line.

Other road work in 2019 included rebuilding the deteriorating Sonoma Mountain Parkway and a safety project on Lakeville Highway, which is notoriously dangerous.

SMART opened its Larkspur extension in December, moving the southern terminus 2 miles closer to the Larkspur ferry building. A deal for a second Petaluma SMART station seemed closer than ever to reality at year’s end after the rail agency and a developer settled a lawsuit. The deal hinges on a developer building a housing project next to the Corona Road station, and the Planning Commission rejected the first version of the proposal as not being dense enough.

Meanwhile, officials made a concerted effort to secure federal funding to dredge the Petaluma River, hosting the regional head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Rep. Jared Huffman on a tour of the river in August. Mayor Barrett delivered a 3,700-signature petition calling for funding, which the city expects to find out about in early 2020.

“Ports like the Petaluma River have effectively been abandoned,” Huffman said at the time. “I don’t think there is a community in America that’s done a better job indicating the need ... and yet had to wait so long on something that’s so urgent.”

7. School district shakeup

Leadership on Petaluma’s largest school board, the Petaluma Joint Union High School board, completely changed when three new members were sworn in at the beginning of the year. Mady Cloud, Joanna Paun and Caitlin Quinn each unseated incumbents in the 2018 election.

Then in March, the district was further rocked by the death of school board member Frank Lynch. The lifelong educator and former Petaluma High School principal died of prostate cancer at the age of 71. Sheldon Gen was appointed to fill the vacant seat, leaving Ellen Webster, who was elected in 2016, as the longest tenured board member.

“It’s a huge loss,” Webster said at the time. “Frank was a well-respected educator. Working with him was a privilege.”

The green school board dealt with its first controversy in May when a Kenilworth Junior High School yearbook photo appeared to show students making an apparent racist gesture. The school asked students to return the yearbooks, and the potentially offensive photos were covered with stickers.

In another shakeup, three top Petaluma school administrators - Petaluma High School Principal David Stirrat, Casa Grande High School Principal Eric Backman and Petaluma Junior High School Principal Renee Semik - stepped down at the end of the school year in June.

8. Cannabis is mainstream

After California voters in 2016 approved recreational marijuana, cannabis further came out into the open in Petaluma this year. Left to craft its own local rules, the city decided to ban retail cannabis shops and instead approved up to two delivery services.

Farmhouse Artisan Market, the first cannabis delivery service in Petaluma, launched in late 2018 and further expanded its Petaluma operation this year.

On the western outskirts of the city, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in October approved a hotly contested marijuana farm on Purvine Road. The 1-acre grow at Petaluma Hills Farm in the Two Rock Valley was opposed by neighbors concerned about the smell and potential for attracting crime.

In November, the first cannabis shop with a Petaluma address opened just outside of city limits on Ely Road. Down Under Industries was the first new cannabis shop permitted in the county since recreational sales began.

“We’re giving people an option that they didn’t have before,” owner Jamie Reagan said at the time. “Now Petaluma has a local resource.”

9. Petaluma Pulitzer

Petaluma poet Forrest Gander in April received a life-changing phone call from an editor informing Gander that he had won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

“I thought he was hoaxing me,” Gander said at the time. “Then I got hundreds of emails and figured it was true.”

A finalist for the Pulitzer in 2012, Gander called the win a “crowning achievement” in a literary career that has spanned decades. A prolific writer, he has authored numerous works of poetry as well as novels and translations of anthologies of Spanish poems.

Gander won the award for his collection of poems, “Be With,” which deal with loss and grief.

Five years ago, Gander and his wife, the poet C.D. Wright, bought a house in Petaluma. After Wright’s death in 2016, Gander moved to Petaluma, where he currently lives with ceramic artist Ashwini Bhat.

The former professor at Harvard University and Brown University said he hoped the prize, which comes with a $15,000 award, would help him bring attention to poetry.

In international appearances throughout the rest of the year, it certainly has brought attention to poetry, and to Petaluma.

10. Young athletes excel

Petaluma athletes shined on the biggest stages of their sports this year. Though not as heralded as the Petaluma National Little League team that went to the World Series in 2012, the Petaluma American Intermediate team of 12- and 13-year-olds went to the World Series after winning the western regional in Arizona.

Petaluma’s American Legion baseball team, the Leghorns, won the California state championship before losing on the final day of the western regional tournament.

Most impressive of all, 13-year-old skateboarding phenom Minna Stess of Petaluma in August competed in the X Games, the premier international event for skateboarding and other extreme sports.

Though she didn’t win a medal, just competing in the elite event in Minneapolis placed her squarely among the best skaters in the world.

With skateboarding making its debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, we could someday see the Petaluman on the sport’s biggest stage.

“That’s definitely the next goal,” she said. “It would be the best experience ever.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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