Safeway revives Petaluma gas station plan

Residents sounded off at a contentious planning meeting on the proposal near McDowell school.|

A controversial Safeway gas station project, proposed four years ago at South McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive, came back to life at Tuesday night’s planning commission meeting, drawing strong opposition from several residents.

Nineteen community members spoke about environmental and safety concerns for a construction site across the street from the North Bay Children’s Center, Petaluma Child Development Center, McDowell Elementary School and McDowell Park, where children spend hours outside each day.

After hearing the public comments, the planning commission elected to revisit the proposed mitigated negative declaration and site plan on June 26 to allow more time to go over the environmental and traffic studies, and provide Safeway the opportunity to do more community outreach, an area planning chair Gina Benedetti-Petnic said they fell short on.

The project’s process for notifying the public also came under fire. In a letter to the city on Monday, Petaluma City Schools’ chief business official Chris Thomas said the district did not receive the proposed mitigated negative declaration during the statutory comment period.

Multiple commission members said they did not have adequate time to review the new proposals, and called for additional studies on pedestrian use, environmental impacts after construction and car accident statistics for the Maria Drive intersection.

“Compared to other jurisdictions, our noticing processes – and this is no fault of current staff – our actual noticing processes are really not designed as well to actually notice people what’s going on … it’s a continuing source of frustration for me,” said vice mayor and council liaison Mike Healy.

McDowell Elementary principal Lauri Anderson said she was “dismayed” to learn of the project’s return when Healy contacted her on May 3. Maureen Rudder, who also spoke during the public comment period, was principal when the project was first proposed in 2014.

Once Petaluma City Schools got word late last week, the district commissioned the Environmental Science Associates to conduct a peer review of the health risk assessment. It concluded that the proximity of the project site was inconsistent with the California Air Resources Board’s land use guidance for protecting children, and found numerous flaws in the data and methods used to calculate health risks.

The flurry of activity in the past week since the resolutions were added to the planning agenda was another reason Thomas advocated for a delay on adoption.

“That’s not a lot of time to be able to respond and feel like we can adequately address the concerns that we’ve heard from Principal Anderson,” she said. “We have nothing against Safeway or the representatives, but as you can see, Safeway has had plenty of time to assemble a team to come tonight. We’ve got a team of me and our principal.”

Safeway put the gas station on hold in 2014 prior to the release of the initial study when the city council failed to pass a moratorium on gas station development in Petaluma. Later that year, the city adjusted its method for calculating its Traffic Development Impact Fee, which Safeway lawyer Matthew Francois alleged was a way to keep the project from being built. That adjustment resulted in a 14,000 percent hike for Safeway if it wanted to pursue the project, jumping from $11,858 in fees to $1.7 million.

After reassessing the fee structure, the project was restarted in 2017 and the proposed mitigation declaration was green-lighted by Bay Area Air Quality Management District in November.

The project would involve demolition of the commercial building in the southeast corner of the Washington Square Shopping Center to make room for a 16-pump gas station, one electric station, and a 697-square foot convenience store. The proposed fuel station would also include improvements to the nearby bus transit center.

Despite complying with every measure mandated by city regulations, the project received strong opposition from concerned educators and residents across from the Washington Square Shopping Center.

In addition to worries regarding quality of life, multiple commenters pointed out the car industry’s shift toward electric vehicles as a sign that a gas station would have little value for Petaluma’s future.

Local business owner Dale Wannen cited a number of car manufacturers that are eying an electric standard in the coming decades, including GM, Volvo and Volkswagen.

“I would assume that those voting in favor of this in your elder years, maybe 10 or 20 years from now,” Wannen said, “as you drive your electric car past a dilapidated and no longer operating gas station and stare at its hideous site, you may say to yourself, ‘What in the world was I thinking?’”

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