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Sid Commons apartments denied over Petaluma River concerns

Planning Commissioners Tuesday denied a request to allow development on a piece of land near the Petaluma River that opponents maintain is environmentally fragile.

Although commissioners rebuffed the request to allow construction of the Sid Commons apartment complex, a 4-3 vote from commissioners certified an environmental impact report sanctioning the proposed development, drawing ire from residents who dispute the findings.

The 205-unit west side project is unable to move forward until the request for permission to build on the parcel is approved, leaving the 15-year-old project up in the air until developer Johnson Investment Corp. receives a zoning change. Developer Mark Johnson said his next steps are to try to take the project before City Council.

The embattled project would sit at the northwestern terminus of Graylawn Avenue in the Payran neighborhood, adjacent to the Oak Creek Apartments on one side and the SMART railroad tracks on the other.

Much of the project’s controversy centers on its boundary with the flood-prone Petaluma River.

“I’ve walked that property and was amazed at the things I saw there,” Commissioner Diana Gomez said. “As my colleagues said, this is a beautiful riparian habitat that we should try to preserve as much as we can.”

Several commissioners also talked of the traffic impact the project would create, along with repeated concerns over disrupting habitat. The decision made Tuesday was narrowly focused on the request to rezone the parcel to allow for development and whether to accept the environmental review report.

Tuesday night’s marathon meeting was not the first time city staff has expressed disapproval of the project, previously communicating concerns over the project’s feasibility before the environmental review process began.

More than 50 residents attended the meeting, some holding signs urging the commission to reject the project and preserve the natural space.

The 5-2 decision by commissioners to advise against development elicited cheers from a room of impassioned citizens, many of whom remained at the meeting for nearly six hours as the clock ran past midnight. Many residents of the Payran neighborhood where the apartment complex is proposed expressed their displeasure at the project. Several talked of their personal experiences with flooding in the area.

“I spent the better part of a decade in storm water management and I’ve also been evacuated and flooded in the middle of the night, so I understand the gravity of this topic,” Commissioner Patrick Streeter said before voting to approve the environmental report and zoning change.

One of the city’s most destructive floods in January 1982 caused an estimated $28 million in damages. An Army Corps of Engineers report documented flooding throughout a 50-block area on both sides of the river, affecting about 500 homes and 100 businesses. The report points to the Payran neighborhood as the most severely hit during the storm, noting some homes along Jess Avenue saw water levels reach four to five feet.

“I’m very troubled with the risk involved in this being in the flood area, it concerns me deeply,” Vice Mayor McDonnell said. “I was here in ‘86 (during a flood) and I did help move all my friends’ personal possessions to a dumpster on Madison. It’s a real thing.”

McDonnell supported the environmental impact report and denied the zoning change request.

Commissioners also voiced a handful of other elements they found troubling or in need of further review within the completed environmental report. These include increased traffic, the future effects of dredging and sea level rise, and whether the flood models adequately predicted future conditions.

Commissioner Heidi Bauer also expressed discomfort with the parcel’s history with flooding, taking issue with the age of the 11-year-old wetland assessment from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I would have liked some boots on the ground, so if we were to ever reassess that I would want a re-assessment done,” Bauer said.

If commissioners approve the change in zoning at a future date, the project’s site and architectural plans will then be up for review by Planning Commissioners. Commissioners Susan Potter and Diana Gomez floated the idea of limiting the size of the development, a potential compromise that would see some of the riverfront habitat preserved while also allowing housing development.

Johnson, the developer, said there are many misconceptions about the building and the environmental feasibility of the project, and said that he and his colleagues went door-to-door in the Payran neighborhood in order to hear their concerns.

“There’s a whole side of the Payran neighborhood that you’re not hearing from tonight,” Johnson said to commissioners after hours of public comment.

Commissioner Scott Alonso voted to approve both the rezoning elements and the environmental impact report, yet conceded that review of the project’s site map and architectural plan may end up killing the project down the line.

“Times are changing and we have a housing crisis,” Alonso said. “I know that’s hard to hear, but we can’t just resist everything that comes forward, and I know that’s a hard conversation given we just had the ban on the Corona Station. But, the reality is, Petaluma is growing and we have to grow responsibly.”

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

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