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Petaluma’s Safeway gas station on hold during trial

Construction of a contentious Safeway gas station on the corner of McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive is now on hold until a lawsuit brought by community members against the grocery giant is settled.

On the heels of a tentative injunction issued early October, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Aurthur Wick ruled Oct. 21 that Safeway cannot break ground on the project situated across from its east side store until litigation is resolved.

The 26-page ruling is a victory for grassroots group No Gas Here and plaintiff Save Petaluma, both created in opposition to the project.

The opponents are suing Safeway and the city to require the company to complete an additional environmental study of the project, with the hope its findings will defeat the fueling station project that was first proposed in 2013.

In his ruling granting Save Petaluma’s request for an administrative stay and preliminary injunction, Judge Wick said allowing the project to go forward would result in changes that cannot be undone and would render the entire legal action moot.

JoAnn McEachin, member of Save Petaluma, said she hopes the halt on construction continues long into the future.

“I’m prepared to continue this lawsuit until we no longer need gas stations, and Safeway can choose another community to pick on,” McEachin said.

The group claims the fueling station’s proximity to a school, daycare center and park is unsafe, pointing to potential air quality degradation and increased traffic.

McEachin said her and other community members unsuccessfully requested Safeway place the fueling station on the other side of the plaza closer to McDowell Boulevard and East Washington Street.

“We are all in favor of cheap gas,” McEachin said. “Just not 60 feet away from a school.”

North Bay Children’s Center, McDowell Elementary School and McDowell Park all sit in the block opposite Safeway on the other side of Maria Drive.

Supporters of the project argue Safeway has a right to build according to preexisting zoning that allows for gas station construction, and say the station will provide discounted fuel.

This indefinite suspension throws off Safeway’s construction timeline that aimed to open the proposed 8-pump fueling station in early 2020.

Project Manager Chris Miles did not return messages seeking an updated timeline.

Safeway’s planned 697-square-foot convenience store and gas station would include 16 fuel dispensers, an electric vehicle charging station and would rebuild the east side Transit Center, according to the project website.

The building on the property, which was slated for demolition, previously housed Pepper’s Restaurant and a handful of smaller businesses including a veterinarian, optometrist, gym and travel agency.

In an email statement, Safeway spokesperson Wendy Gutshall said they expect a full hearing on the case in early 2020.

“Safeway is confident that the law and facts will result in a positive outcome,” Gutshall said in the statement.

City officials and local gas station owners first raised concerns over Safeway’s plans to build the fueling station at an August 2014 city council meeting, citing health, traffic and price competition concerns.

The planning commission approved the project in June 2018, prompting an appeal from opponents. A few months later in December 2018, the city council voted to require additional environmental review. In response, Safeway argued the decision was invalid, as the item was not on the agenda meeting.

The city council eventually reconsidered, and in April council members voted to deny opponents’ appeal and once again approved the project.

The council’s decision prompted No Gas Here members to create Save Petaluma and sue the city in May with the goal of overturning its most recent April approval, requiring additional environmental impact review. Safeway was included as an interested party in the action taken by Save Petaluma against the city.

Patrick Soluri, the attorney representing Save Petaluma, previously said the goal of the lawsuit is to empower the city with the authority to deny the gas station project. McEachin said she believes the council had no option but to approve the project, and she hopes the suit will create one.

Assistant City Attorney Jordan Green said the city expects a court date to be scheduled on or after Nov. 21, after which a timeline of the case will be more clear.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com.)

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