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Criticized SMART station area plan back before Petaluma planners tonight

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A development project linked to Petaluma’s second SMART station failed to receive support from Planning Commission members last Tuesday, forcing city staff and the developer to regroup and attempt to appease commissioners’ concerns this week.

Planning commissioners will continue consideration of the project following revised resolutions from city staff at the Nov. 19 meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at City Hall.

The 6.5-acre proposed project on the corner of Corona Road and North McDowell Boulevard sits next to the SMART rail corridor alongside the long-proposed east Petaluma station. The developer proposed to erect 110 single-family homes, both detached and attached units, and each home would include a two-car garage and small front patio area.

Developer Lomas Partners entered into an agreement with the SMART rail agency to give them a 1.27-acre portion of the property for construction of a 150-space parking lot that would serve the future station. In return, Lomas Partners is to purchase and develop the D Street lot behind the downtown SMART station, a deal giving the rail agency both revenue and parking space required for the station to move forward.

The result is a complex agreement tying two development projects with the future of the second station. It also forces the city to wade into a private agreement struck between the rail agency and developer.

Concerns from both citizens and commissioners centered on the project’s single-family unit design, its lack of retail opportunities, safety and traffic concerns and over whether the project incentivizes vehicle-based transportation.

While the project’s design elicited repeated criticism, several members also expressed frustration over feeling unable to make a determination on the project without also making a decision on the station at the same time.

“Now you’re putting the proverbial gun to our head to approve this, which isn’t fair to anyone here, it’s not fair to the public that came out and sat here for three and a half hours,” said Commission Chair Scott Alonso, addressing Lomas Partners representative Todd Kurtin. “We don’t want to be held hostage.”

The city has made no secret of their desire to see the east Petaluma SMART station built, incorporating the proposed station into Petaluma’s 2013 Master Plan. However, the agreement reached between the rail agency and the developer after years of negotiations resulted in a project proposal that commissioners have so far rejected, despite its promise to pave the way for the second station.

“This is kind of one of those projects that doesn’t fit anyone’s desires, every part of this project has one problem with one group or the other,” said Commissioner Diana Gomez.

The meeting marks the first time the proposed 110 single-family unit development appeared before a local government body. A legal battle between Lomas Partners and SMART paralyzed the project for 16 months. Yet the terms the two parties agreed to have met significant pushback from commissioners tasked with making a recommendation on the project for city council to consider.

The five resolutions city staff presented to the commission for review Tuesday night included a request to change the zoning of the property to allow for single-family residential use. The plot is currently zoned for mixed-use purposes, and commission members repeatedly criticized the developer’s decision not to include any commercial property space, suggesting a cafe or small convenience store for rail passengers.

The zoning issue also led several commissioners to express that they don’t see the proposed residential project as an appropriate neighbor to a transportation center.

“This will be the only project in the entire North Bay with homes next to a train station, it’s just a bad policy,” Alonso said. “I know we like to be unique in Petaluma, but that is the wrong way to be unique.”

Kurtin, the developer, said he originally included retail space on the property, but that he was forced to forfeit that space in order to give SMART a larger parking space allotment.

Planning Manager Heather Hines said staff views the project as the only way to guarantee the station is built, pointing to the downtown D Street parcel’s sale as necessary revenue for SMART to push the project forward.

Approximately $6 million of the proceeds from the D Street parcel’s sale would go toward the east Petaluma station construction, city officials said. Hines said the city of Petaluma is in talks with the rail agency to provide an additional $2 million toward the project.

“We knew that if that downtown parcel is not sold as a related component, then there’s not that $6 million and we’re not meeting the $8 million needed for the station,” Hines said.

The advisory commission voted unanimously to continue discussion of the project at the next meeting Nov. 19, hoping that Lomas Partners will address elements of the project that led five members of the seven-member body to express disapproval. Sandra Potter was absent from the meeting and Vice Mayor Kevin McDonnell, although displeased with multiple elements of the proposal, indicated he could support the project.

“I have to re-evaluate and they have to re-evaluate,” Kurtin said, following the energetic meeting and decision to continue the discussion next week. “I think the city is going to need to decide whether they want the SMART station or not.”

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