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Petaluma Planning Commission recommends city approve controversial Scott Ranch housing development

After 18 years of public pushback, discussion and compromise, a controversial Petaluma housing project is moving forward.

The final environmental impact report for the Scott Ranch development was approved late Tuesday by the Petaluma Planning Commission, moving the project forward to the City Council with recommendation for final approval.

The Planning Commission approved the environmental report in a 5-2 vote, with commissioners Darren Racusen and Blake Hooper voting against approval as further concerns were raised over potential environmental impacts.

“We have responded to the community’s vision for this property,” said Steve Abbs, vice president of Davidon Homes, in an emailed news release Wednesday. “This property is legally designated for residential (use), and what is proposed is a fair balance in addressing housing needs, protection of open space and providing benefits for all Petalumans.”

The project involves a 58.66-acre property located off D Street and Windsor Drive on Petaluma’s rural west side, which was purchased by Walnut Creek-based developer Davidon Homes for nearly $8 million in 2003, and was originally slated solely as a housing project with nearly 100 homes.

In June 2018, Davidon reached an agreement with the community-led group Kelly Creek Protection Project of Earth Island Institute, which ultimately agreed to purchase 47 acres of the property for $4.1 million to preserve open space.

That purchase will only be completed, however, after the City Council grants approval to both facets of the project.

Current plans have substantially decreased the project’s amount of housing, now calling for the construction of just 28 single-family homes, some with accessory dwelling units, on about 6.4 acres of land. There will be an additional 5 acres of private open space, leaving the rest for an extension of Helen Putnam Regional Park.

The park extension would be carried out in three phases, with the first to be completed by the Kelly Creek Protection Project before transferring ownership of the property to Sonoma County Regional Parks. Improvements include fencing and enhancements to the park’s stock pond, which the California red-legged frog uses as a breeding habitat; and restoring eroded gullies and the riparian corridor in the Kelly Creek area to improve water quality and help further preserve wildlife habitat.

“I think this is an amazing example of what can happen when you keep talking,” said one resident who spoke during the commissioners meeting. “I think it’s going to be a great addition to our park system.”

The project promises to align with recent citywide climate framework, with its housing to include all-electric features, including solar power and electric vehicle charger connections in each garage. New public parking lots associated with the Helen Putnam park extension will also provide four electric vehicle charging stalls.

The project will also encourage active transportation with the installation of sidewalks, bike lanes and multi-use pathways, as well as a traffic circle with crosswalks on D Street to slow the speed of traffic and increase safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

However, the final environmental impact report found that due to its location the project would create “significant and unavoidable” impacts in vehicle miles traveled, but the City Council may decide the benefits from the project’s other proposed environmentally friendly qualities override such impacts.

But planning commission chair Heidi Bauer said that, without the approval of the project, the site’s environment and natural habitat would end up worsening.

“I walked the site and looked around and it’s not in good environmental shape, the way it is,” Bauer said. “The gully that’s there is huge and it’s not natural, and when there are storms it pumps sediment into Kelly Creek and it clogs the ecosystem. It’s a really bad habitat for animals, and it needs to be restored.”

While some commissioners and residents were impressed by the project’s significant downsizing in its residential development portion, others remained uneasy over the presence of any housing in an area rich with a diverse amount of species. One resident who spoke during the meeting called the project an “ecological catastrophe.”

“I am worried we downplay sensitive and protected species in this area,” Racusen said following public comment. “I am not convinced we have a firm grasp on the biodiversity of the fauna that use the site for migration, foraging and the like.”

Hooper added to concerns over the significant impacts in vehicle miles the project would impose.

“It is quite impressive to see where (the project) is now, compared to what it used to be,” Hooper said. “That being said, respectfully, the best iteration of something is not necessarily the right thing to do, and just because it’s been a long time doesn’t mean it’s ready.”

Hooper addressed public comments that suggested the project would ease the city’s housing shortage, and added, as someone who has worked in housing policy development, “just building” is not “the solution we’re going to see in our lifetime” to solve the ongoing housing crisis.

While Petaluma City Council member Kevin McDonnell, who serves as liaison to the Planning Commission, expressed overall support of the Scott Ranch project, he responded to concerns over how developing more homes would impact the city’s water levels, urging project staff to be aware that if the drought worsens, the city may need to move toward placing a moratorium on development.

“Right now we’re in that careful area,” McDonnell said.

Commissioner Rick Whisman, who also supported the project, called Scott Ranch a “satisfactory compromise” and that it has an “effective balance between environmental stewardship and also meeting the needs of the community.”

“Folks may have different opinions on what is better housing than others, but all housing makes a positive benefit in some way,” Whisman said.

It is not yet known when the City Council will review the project for approval, but would likely be sometime this fall.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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