Petaluma gas station decision in city council’s hands

The Petaluma City Council on Monday will hear an appeal of a controversial Safeway gas station project.|

Gas or no gas?

That’s the question the Petaluma City Council will have to answer Monday when it discusses the fate of the polarizing Safeway gas station project, and whether an 8-pump station with 16 dispensers is warranted on South McDowell Boulevard.

The planning commission approved the project with a split vote on June 26, but several residents filed an appeal of that decision on July 9, which forced the council to step in. The council can either “affirm, affirm in part, or reverse” the decision, according to the Implementing Zoning Ordinance. It’s the first appeal of a city decision since 2015.

Most of the 18 citizens that signed the appeal are members of the opposition group “No Gas Here.” They have collected signatures, planted signs, regularly posted on Facebook, and contacted media outlets and elected officials throughout the region to rally support, said JoAnn McEachin, a group member and author of the appeal letter.

“I’m not opposed to cheap gas. I’m not opposed to saving pennies,” she said. “I’m just opposed to that location.”

The main criticisms of the project are focused on the environmental impact from idling cars, increased traffic at an already congested corridor, and the need for another gas station within half a mile of two others.

Proponents, on the other hand, welcome a discount alternative to better balance Petaluma’s high costs for gas.

At the forefront of the debate has been the station’s proximity to multiple schools including McDowell Elementary, the Petaluma Child Development Center and the North Bay Children’s Center, a nonprofit that serves mostly low-income families.

Many residents resisting the project have repeatedly pointed to the potential health risks and safety hazards associated with having a busy fueling center so close to a place where developing children spend hours outside each day.

The station is proposed for the southeast corner of the Washington Square Shopping Center, at the intersection of South McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive. The schools are about 60 feet east of the site, adjacent to McDowell Park.

In an email sent on behalf of Petaluma City Schools, Superintendent Gary Callahan said the district still has apprehensions about the project.

“In the past three months, the district has shared with the city its concerns about the project, and have been active participants in several planning commission meetings,” he said. “These concerns have not changed, and we have contracted with an environmental consultant to review the findings presented to the planning commission. We merely want to ensure any planned development so close to a school and community-use fields are safe for all.”

NBCC executive director Susan Gilmore recently sent a letter to the city stating their support of Safeway’s compliance with strict regulations, and the company’s efforts to mitigate potential hazards.

“NBCC’s primary interests in the project link to health and safety issues,” Gilmore wrote. “We are satisfied that the proposed Safeway project does not place the health and safety of the children and staff at an increased risk as a result of the project.”

Safeway representatives have said throughout the process that the fueling station is in response to customer demand, backed by a poll of 500 residents that found more than half regularly leave Petaluma to buy gas. Safeway’s plan includes a 697-square foot convenience store, one electric vehicle charging station, frontage enhancements, and improvements to the nearby bus transit center.

“After nearly six years of review, Safeway has participated in more than 10 public hearings, 14 technical studies, and 60-plus plan revisions to incorporate community feedback into the Petaluma gas station proposal,” Safeway spokesperson Wendy Gutshall said in an email. “Our plan to bring convenient and affordable gas to Petaluma is thoroughly vetted, and meets all environmental, traffic, health and safety standards.”

The supermarket chain initially proposed the station in 2013, but put the project on hold a year later when the city council attempted and subsequently failed to pass a moratorium on gas station development.

Later in 2014, the city altered its method for calculating its traffic impact fee, which Safeway representatives alleged was another attempt to kill the project. That adjustment resulted in a 14,000 percent hike if Safeway wanted to go forward, jumping from $11,858 in fees to $1.7 million.

After the city reassessed the fee structure, the project was restarted last year and the proposed mitigation was OK’d by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in November, clearing its path to the planning commission on May 8.

Planning commissioners initially deferred a decision on the project, requesting additional time to review the site plan and proposed mitigations. They also called for more research, and criticized Safeway’s poor public outreach.

The June planning commission meeting was tense, and featured emotionally-charged exchanges between commissioners and Safeway representatives. During the applicant’s presentation, lawyer Matthew Francois threatened the city with litigation if the project was denied, saying city officials would be violating state regulations by subjecting it to such a lengthy approval process despite meeting all of its requirements.

The planning commission ultimately approved the project with a 4-3 ruling. Scott Alonso, Heidi Bauer and Bill Wolpert cast the dissenting votes. Safeway held two public forums at the project site prior to the June 26 meeting, as well as two this past week.

“The Petaluma Safeway gas station proposal is ready for approval,” Gutshall said. “We look forward to presenting this project to the mayor and city council.”

Safeway representatives have asserted that the council has little legal leeway to reject the project at this point, but that’s not deterring No Gas Here advocates, who are committed to fight the gas station even after City Hall weighs in one last time.

“We just are not going to give up,” McEachin said. “This is not over. By the outreach and public support that we’ve gotten … it has really given me confidence that grassroots movements can move mountains.”

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

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