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Once a sleepy river town, Petaluma has grown up in 160 years

In 1858, Petaluma was a bustling, fast-growing community that was clearly looking for permanence on the banks of its commercial river. The area had grown along with the booming city on the other side of the Golden Gate, but for very different reasons. Southern Sonoma County was the larder from which the tens of thousands of gold seekers were fed on their way through to the fabulous treasuries buried in the eastern mountains.

The city’s first form of organization was basic incorporation. Reported details of the beginning are a bit murky: A Board of Trustees was elected on April 12, 1858, but the news wasn’t published until April 23 in the Journal, the town’s paper of record. And just who voted isn’t very clear, although it would likely have been all males over the age of 21 owning property in the city limits.

Five trustees were elected along with a recorder, a treasurer, a marshal and an assessor. They rented the top floor of the Post Office at $20 a month and the city was in business. The first order of business was hiring John Brown as top policeman at $60 a month. The next order of business was building a street and appointing a committee of two to propose an ordinance setting up licenses for business and transportation.

The city’s very first ordinance set quarterly fees for doing business in town: bankers and brokers ($5), merchants and storekeepers ($2.50-$6, depending on sales), barrooms ($7), and more, covering everything from the Chinese wash house to visiting circuses.

Every form of transportation required a license, too. “Sec. 17: The owner or owners of every stage coach, hack, carriage, cab, dray, cart, car, wagon, or other vehicle used for hire, or for vending merchandise, within the limits of the City of Petaluma, shall pay for a license to use the same, per quarter.”

A speed limit was added soon after: “No person shall ride or drive any horse or other animal through the streets ... at a faster gait than a common trot.”

Petaluma built its early economy around agriculture, especially the poultry industry, earning the nickname, “World’s Egg Basket.” By 1917, Petaluma was shipping 16 million dozen eggs. The Corliss Ranch, with 50,000 chickens, was then the world’s largest.

In 1911, citizens voted to operate the city under a freeholder’s charter, a move that gave Petalumans much greater control over how they govern themselves. Called the “home rule” provision of the state constitution, the charter was based on the idea that a city is better able to govern itself than the state.

While it doesn’t spell out all the rights and privileges that are purely municipal, under a charter a city can regulate its own police force, set up sub-governments (like planning, public works, etc.), conduct city elections and decide how municipal officers are elected. The state still regulates matters of traffic and vehicle registration, tort claims against a government agency and school oversight.

Petaluma’s original charter calls for an elected mayor and six elected councilmen serving staggered four-year terms, with the mayor and three council members elected at one time and the other three council members elected two years later.

From the start, these jobs have been paid minimum stipends: the mayor gets $10 a meeting and the council members $5. Every attempt to increase payments has been defeated at the polls.

In 1947, the charter was amended to provide for a city manager-type of government, with a well-paid executive officer hired by the City Council to run the growing city. The manager runs the city, oversees all aspects of administration and budgeting and is answerable only to the council.

In the 1960s east Petaluma experienced a building boom, attracting buyers seeking relatively inexpensive housing and a reasonable commute to San Francisco on the newly built freeway, Highway 101. The flurry of subdivision severely stressed the city’s ability to provide services.

By 1972, Petaluma gained nationwide fame for being the first city in the nation to effectively limit growth by passing a plan that limited growth to 500 homes per year. That plan was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.

In 1982, the first of a series of winter floods inundated the Payran neighborhood causing millions of dollars in damage. City and federal officials eventually worked out a flood control project, which is set to conclude this year.

Optilink was founded in Petaluma in 1987, and soon other technology companies would follow, transitioning the city’s economy into the modern era and giving Petaluma a new nickname, “Telecom Valley.”

The 1990s saw the opening of the Petaluma Outlet Mall and the Santa Rosa Junior College campus. Voters in 1998 passed an urban growth boundary, limiting development to areas within the current city limits.

In 2007, the last piece of a $100 million downtown renovation project by Basin Street properties opened. The six-block Theater District includes a 12-screen movie theater restaurants, offices and residential units. Throughout the last decade, the city has continued to grow, adding the East Washington Place shopping center in 2013 and Deer Creek Village a year later.

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