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Safeway gas station on hold as judge considers project

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A Sonoma County Superior Court judge temporarily put a hold on construction of a new gas station, dealing a blow to Safeway’s effort to break ground on the controversial east Petaluma project this year.

In a tentative ruling last week, Judge Arthur Wick granted an injunction to halt work on the McDowell Boulevard site while a court challenge proceeds.

Opponents are suing to require Safeway to do additional environmental study of the project that is across the street from an elementary school. They say the gas station will degrade air quality and cause unwanted traffic in the area.

Proponents say the gas station will provide Petalumans with discounted fuel. They argue that Safeway has a right to build the project on the property that is zoned to include gas station development.

In his 7,000-word tentative ruling, Wick wrote that allowing construction to proceed would render the court case irrelevant.

“Allowing activities to go forward under a challenged project, which will result in changes that cannot be undone and which may nullify the entire basis of the action, may in fact render the entire action moot, especially if the petitioner makes no effort to stop the activities pending litigation,” Wick wrote in the Oct. 8 ruling. “It is clear that without an injunction there will be irreparable injury that cannot be cured with a legal remedy. This is obviously the type of case with a threat of irreparable injury since the project will be built and it may not be practicable to undo it.”

The tentative ruling came a day before lawyers for Safeway and a coalition of residents opposing the project presented oral arguments. The judge was expected to issue a final ruling on the injunction this week.

Matthew Francois, an attorney representing Safeway and the city of Petaluma, said he could not comment on the ongoing case.

“We were pleased with the oral argument on the preliminary motions in this case and will be waiting for a ruling by Judge Wick,” Francois wrote in an email. “We cannot make any further comments at this time given that this matter is in active litigation.”

It is unclear how the ruling will affect Safeway’s proposed timeline for the project. The vacant building at the project site on McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive has been surrounded by fencing. The project website says demolition of the building is scheduled for this fall with an anticipated opening in spring of 2020.

Chris Miles, the project manager, did not return messages seeking comment.

A final ruling granting the injunction would be a victory for No Gas Here, the movement formed to block the project. The group sued the city in May to overturn its April 1 approval of the project, naming Safeway as an interested party. It was the latest move in a 7-year saga over the project that was proposed in 2013.

The planning commission approved the project, with eight pumps and 16 fuel dispensers, in June 2018. Opponents appealed the decision, and in December 2018, the city council voted to require more environmental review. Safeway argued that the decision was invalid since it was not on the meeting agenda that night.

The council eventually reconsidered its action and in April voted to deny the appeal and approve the project, prompting the lawsuit.

Patrick Soluri, the attorney representing No Gas Here, said the goal of the lawsuit is to empower the city with the authority to deny the gas station project. Barring that, he said Safeway should be compelled to complete an environmental review, which he said could show the project is infeasible.

The injunction could keep the project on hold for months during the trial, Soluri said.

“We don’t want them to start any earthmoving,” he said. “We fully expect the court to confirm the tentative ruling.”

(Matt.Brown@arguscourier.com.)

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