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Safeway gas station battle continues, trial date still uncertain

On the heels of the city’s recent decision to ban future gas station construction, the only fueling center project exempted from that ordinance remains locked in a legal battle that is fast approaching a two-year mark.

The embattled Safeway gas station, at the center of a lawsuit along with the city partly over its proximity to an elementary school, could be the last gas station built within city limits – but its future still remains uncertain.

Construction on the 16-dispenser discount fueling center, which is intended to sit on the corner of South McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive, is stalled following a 2019 court-ordered injunction. All the while, the lengthy pre-hearing process continues, with no scheduled trial date in sight.

While the corner lot in front of the grocery store sits vacant and devoid of activity, movement on the lawsuit, which also names the city of Petaluma, has continued behind the scenes.

Patrick Soluri, the attorney representing Save Petaluma, said after months of back-and-forth in discovery, the suit is now moving toward what he calls a critical period, when the merits of the case can be argued in court.

“We’ve been in the process of obtaining the evidence necessary for us to put on our case,” Soluri said. “That is what all this has been about since October (2019). The injunction has been in place this entire time.”

Attorney Matthew Francois, who is representing both the city and Safeway, said in an email he did not have much to update regarding the case, offering that the city has responded to recent written discovery submitted by Save Petaluma and that he is “hopeful the Court will soon set this matter for a hearing on the merits.”

The hearing, when it comes, will mark a critical juncture for what has stretched into an eight-year saga over the gas station first proposed in 2013.

The planning commission approved the project, with 16 dispensers, in June 2018. A community led coalition opposing the project appealed the decision, and in December 2018, the city council voted to require more environmental review.

Yet after a challenge by Safeway over the validity of council’s decision for further review, Petaluma’s city council reconsidered, and in April 2019, voted to deny residents’ appeal and approve the project. The following month, Save Petaluma sued the grocery chain and the city of Petaluma, attempting to require additional environmental study of the project, which sits across the street from an elementary school. Group leaders say the gas station will degrade air quality and cause unwanted traffic in the area.

The City Council’s high-profile decision earlier this month to become the first city in the nation to ban future gas station construction does not apply to the Safeway project, as it was already approved. However, Soluri said he’s encouraged by the discourse around gas station placement and construction.

“I would love for all of this going on in Petaluma and this lawsuit to hopefully lead to some second thoughts over whether it makes sense to put a gas station there,” Soluri said. “Literally right across the street from daycare centers and an elementrary school.”

Soluri said he expects it will be another four to six months before the case gets to trial, but even that timeline is subject to change.

Yet even beyond the first trial date, Soluri says he’s looking more long term, signaling the fight over the Safeway gas station may stretch on.

“I’m highly optimistic we are going to prevail, but even if we do, I expect Safeway will appeal,” Soluri said.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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