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Petaluma freezes new gas station development

In the aftermath of the controversial decision approving a Safeway gas station, Petaluma officials are taking a serious look at the inner-workings of some of their most essential practices when it comes to their authority for reviewing projects.

The catalyst, a freeze on new gas station development in Petaluma, gives officials time to craft a new law that would give the city the freedom to require the sort of stringent environmental review that its bylaws and judicial precedents previously said it could not.

The city council this week unanimously voted in favor of extending a 45-day “urgency ordinance” that was adopted on May 6 and prevented the approval of any new gas station applications. According to city officials, there are no pending applications this ordinance would directly impact.

Monday night’s decision added 10 months and 15 days to the bureaucratic standstill to allow city staff enough time to bring forward new legislation that would eliminate the kind of loopholes that Safeway exploited. Under threat of litigation, the council on April 1 denied a citizens appeal and approved the project without an environmental impact report.

Through two council discussions over the past month, the city’s elected officials have been in agreement that a change is needed and that fuel station projects should have to earn a conditional use permit, a more rigorous approval that gives the city more authority to dictate its terms.

In fact, when it comes to gas stations, some officials are ready to take it one step further.

“I would support prohibiting them in the future altogether,” said Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer. “A conditional use permit or other sort of entitlement is inappropriate given our current climate crisis and where we’re going, and where I want to see the city go in the future.”

The moratorium does not apply to the Safeway gas station, said Planning Manager Heather Hines.

Safeway’s legal team has repeatedly requested language in the ordinance that explicitly protects the project, but so far the council has declined. City officials have made separate assurances that it will not be affected.

Previously, the city’s requirements for a project like Safeway’s were bound to its policies regarding site plan and architectural review. Referred to as “SPAR,” the examination process became even more limited after the recent precedent set by McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group v. City of St. Helena.

Under the ruling, when a municipal body is reviewing the site plans for a project that doesn’t include a conditional use permit, it has no authority under the California Environmental Quality Act to pursue additional analyses. Instead, the review is limited to the design and aesthetics.

City staff will also be using this window to explore various aspects of the SPAR process internally, Hines said.

The urgency ordinance was initially pursued because officials felt there was an immediate threat to the public health, safety or welfare of the community that hindered the city’s abilities to act under the McCorkle precedent.

Safeway has asserted that a moratorium like this isn’t needed.

“We maintain that there’s not an emergency here,” said Hannah Goodwin, an attorney for Rutan & Tucker, the law firm representing Safeway. “There’s no imminent threat that requires such action by the city council.”

Petaluma considered a similar moratorium in 2014, an idea proposed by Councilman Mike Healy, who sought to address the nuances of gas station approvals when the Safeway project was still in its infancy.

At that time, however, only council members Kathy Miller and Gabe Kearney backed him.

With that missed opportunity gone, Kearney, like Fischer, is ready to ban future fossil fuel projects citywide.

“Five years ago I voted for the same ordinance, and would be in favor of modifying the IZO and Smart Code to prohibit new fossil fuel stations for use in all zones going forward,” he said.

City Attorney Eric Danly expects the proposed legislation to emerge before the end of the year, although there is an option for the council to extend the moratorium for an additional 12 months.

Before it’s adopted, the planning commission will get a chance to review the new statutes prior to final approval from the council.

Environmental activists commended the city for moving forward on the moratorium, especially with Petaluma last month passing the county’s first climate emergency resolution.

“It would be good to have a nice, clear, concise law that says ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and that would allow us to move forward,” said Sierra Club executive committee member Richard Sachen. “I think this moratorium, to come with a better review of the planning (process), could help the city, the county and the Bay Area meet our gas emission goals, which we have failed to do year after year.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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