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Petaluma approves controversial Sid Commons apartments

For the second time in two weeks, Petaluma's City Council on Monday opted to move ahead with a controversial housing development, approving the 180-unit Sid Commons apartment project alongside the Petaluma River.

The development, first proposed more than 10 years ago, was downsized after running into a raft of opposition and questions in a Nov. 19 hearing before the Planning Commission.

Those changes failed to mollify a vocal group of citizens and some planning commissioners who remained concerned about environmental impacts.

But the project, approved by the council on a 5-2 vote, has now undergone all required environmental study and will be subject to state regulations and permits. Questions about the adequacy of that review and those safeguards lingered this week, fueling public scrutiny that colored much of the project's presentation at City Hall.

Petaluma's senior planner and its environmental planner went through staff findings and recommendations nearly line by line. Council members split over their confidence in the environmental report and thus their support for the project.

“I have to base my decision on objective evidence, and that's what is laid out here,” said Councilman Mike Healy, who joined in the majority that approved the project and its environmental impact report. “This project is not within the 100-year floodplain, and the (river) terracing will be a benefit for the city.”

Mayor Teresa Barrett and Vice Mayor D'Lynda Fischer formed the opposition on the council, voicing doubts over the environmental study.

The west side development will sit at the end of Graylawn Avenue in the Payran neighborhood with the Oak Creek Apartments on the opposite side of the street. The parcel is bordered by the SMART rail line on one side and the Petaluma River on the other.

The riverside is largely undeveloped in the area, offering up undisturbed riparian habitat that includes two wetlands and mature oak trees. The surrounding neighborhood has a history of flooding.

Public opposition to the project centered primarily on risk of future flooding and traffic volumes, with some directly questioning staff findings. Members of the public at times disrupted and yelled at council members, breaching standard decorum during the hours-long meeting.

Barrett welcomed the project revisions but said the development was still a poor fit for the site.

“The underlying problem is where it's located, and I don't think that can be fixed except for an extremely small project,” she said. “It says to me that you are putting a project in the wrong area if you have to keep mitigating, mitigating, mitigating.”

Project opponents said the undeveloped parcel helps buffer flood risks, an assertion challenged by the city's study.

The compromise adopted by developer J. Cyril Johnson Investment Corporation after the Planning Commission's Nov. 19 meeting was to downsize the project to preserve more riverfront habitat and oak trees while meeting the city's housing priorities.

The firm submitted a revised development plan in early January reducing the number of apartment units from 205 to 180 and pulling the building footprint back from the riverbank. The updated plan also preserves more heritage oaks, sets aside 10% of the units for low-income housing for 55 years, and commits to all-electric utilities.

The change represented the third revision to the project, which got to City Council in March 2018 as a three-story 278-unit development.

Representatives from Johnson Investment Corp. pointed to the revisions and outreach to Payran neighbors as evidence they want to work with the city.

“What I'm hoping you're not going to do is to take an action that would send the message that if a developer comes to town and (works with the community), that a small and passionate group of people that do not agree with or trust the staff analysis can show up at the eleventh hour and … force you to make a decision that is at odds with your general plan,” Matthew Visick, a land use attorney for Johnson Investment Corp., told the council before its vote.

The approval came a week after the council, in a 5-2 straw vote, overturned the city Planning Commission and opted to move forward on the controversial Corona Station development. It calls for 400 apartments behind the downtown SMART station. Barrett and Fischer again formed the opposition.

A formal vote on that project was pushed to Feb. 10.

The Sid Commons project now moves back to the Planning Commission in the coming weeks for input on architectural and visual elements.

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