Gas or no gas?
That’s the question the Petaluma City Council will have to answer Monday when it discusses the fate of the polarizing Safeway gas station project, and whether an 8-pump station with 16 dispensers is warranted on South McDowell Boulevard.
The planning commission approved the project with a split vote on June 26, but several residents filed an appeal of that decision on July 9, which forced the council to step in. The council can either “affirm, affirm in part, or reverse” the decision, according to the Implementing Zoning Ordinance. It’s the first appeal of a city decision since 2015.
Most of the 18 citizens that signed the appeal are members of the opposition group “No Gas Here.” They have collected signatures, planted signs, regularly posted on Facebook, and contacted media outlets and elected officials throughout the region to rally support, said JoAnn McEachin, a group member and author of the appeal letter.
“I’m not opposed to cheap gas. I’m not opposed to saving pennies,” she said. “I’m just opposed to that location.”
The main criticisms of the project are focused on the environmental impact from idling cars, increased traffic at an already congested corridor, and the need for another gas station within half a mile of two others.
Proponents, on the other hand, welcome a discount alternative to better balance Petaluma’s high costs for gas.
At the forefront of the debate has been the station’s proximity to multiple schools including McDowell Elementary, the Petaluma Child Development Center and the North Bay Children’s Center, a nonprofit that serves mostly low-income families.
Many residents resisting the project have repeatedly pointed to the potential health risks and safety hazards associated with having a busy fueling center so close to a place where developing children spend hours outside each day.
The station is proposed for the southeast corner of the Washington Square Shopping Center, at the intersection of South McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive. The schools are about 60 feet east of the site, adjacent to McDowell Park.
In an email sent on behalf of Petaluma City Schools, Superintendent Gary Callahan said the district still has apprehensions about the project.
“In the past three months, the district has shared with the city its concerns about the project, and have been active participants in several planning commission meetings,” he said. “These concerns have not changed, and we have contracted with an environmental consultant to review the findings presented to the planning commission. We merely want to ensure any planned development so close to a school and community-use fields are safe for all.”
NBCC executive director Susan Gilmore recently sent a letter to the city stating their support of Safeway’s compliance with strict regulations, and the company’s efforts to mitigate potential hazards.
“NBCC’s primary interests in the project link to health and safety issues,” Gilmore wrote. “We are satisfied that the proposed Safeway project does not place the health and safety of the children and staff at an increased risk as a result of the project.”
Safeway representatives have said throughout the process that the fueling station is in response to customer demand, backed by a poll of 500 residents that found more than half regularly leave Petaluma to buy gas. Safeway’s plan includes a 697-square foot convenience store, one electric vehicle charging station, frontage enhancements, and improvements to the nearby bus transit center.