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Safeway gas station needs more review: Petaluma council

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After two delays due to last minute submissions of mountainous piles of technical documents, the Petaluma City Council finally discussed the appeal of a controversial Safeway gas station project Monday, ruling in favor of a local grassroots opposition group and sending the project back for more environmental review.

Following hours of testimony from dozens of No Gas Here advocates, as well as allies and representatives of the supermarket chain, the council, with Mayor David Glass absent, voted unanimously to commission an environmental impact report before the project can be approved.

“The community has been very clear as to what they want, and the issues that they’ve brought up are very, very valid,” said Councilman Gabe Kearney.

Completing an EIR will likely be time-consuming and costly for Safeway, administered by a neutral agency handpicked by city officials.

The report will explore the environmental dangers and the potential mitigations for a gas station with eight pumps and 16 dispensers at 335 South McDowell Blvd., approximately 50 feet from multiple schools and fields where children play outside each day.

But once those impacts have been accurately identified and addressed, refusing the project will be even more difficult for the next council, which means this week’s decision may have only stalled the gas station.

“We are disappointed that the city has deferred a vote and is requesting yet more environmental review,” Safeway spokesperson Wendy Gutshall said in an email. “However, we are confident that a seventh year and 16th study will confirm prior findings.”

Throughout the night, much of the discussion was focused on the council’s authority at this stage of the approval process.

The elected body was forced to hear the issue after No Gas Here co-founder JoAnn McEachin filed an appeal of the planning commission’s split vote to approve the project in June. It was Petaluma’s first appeal of a municipal decision since 2015.

The council could either “affirm, affirm in part, or reverse” the decision, according to the Implementing Zoning Ordinance. But a Sept. 17 letter from Soluri Meserve, the environmental law firm aligned with No Gas Here, introduced another option.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act and a precedent set by a recent case, Protect Niles v. City of Fremont, the council had a relatively low threshold for providing evidence that the project could create significant environmental impacts and, in turn, warranted an EIR.

It was an option that grew more appealing as time went on and experts on both sides of the project failed to find any sort of common ground or consensus, inundating city officials with opposing analysis.

“As the environmental impact report comes back, hopefully that will put one side or the other’s issues, fears, concerns at rest,” said Councilman Chris Albertson. “We’ll see where that goes.”

Before the council’s first scheduled hearing on Sept. 17, the No Gas Here group grew rapidly, at one point filing paperwork as a political action committee to ramp up fundraising and protect its members from potentially being targeted by Safeway, McEachin said.

Soluri Meserve and other organizations emerged to aid the opposition group, commissioning studies and battling Safeway’s well-funded retorts over the course of several months.

In addition to the unanimous vote, the council widely criticized both the appellant and applicant for what Albertson described as “document dumps” in the immediate hours and days before each of the three scheduled hearings, causing two continuations. Multiple members held up binders that were several inches thick to provide perspective.

In the end, it was those dumps that highlighted the increasing disparity between both sides, forcing city staff to amend their recommendation just before the hearing and solely support the pursuit of an EIR.

“I don’t think it’s borderline disrespectful – I think it’s disrespectful,” Councilwoman Kathy Miller said of the tardy paperwork. “Some of us up here have full-time jobs, and for us to be getting documentation like this on the day of the hearing doesn’t give us time to review all of it.”

The project was introduced in 2012, offering a discount alternative to Petaluma’s notoriously high costs for gas. For years, it navigated bureaucratic attempts by previous city councils to kill the project by capping gas station development.

It returned to the public sphere in May at a hearing in front of the planning commission. Due to Safeway’s poor outreach efforts, many of which inspired new notification practices for local development, the hearing was delayed until June when the city’s commissioners eventually cast a 4-3 vote.

If constructed, the project would include a 697-square-foot convenience store, an electric vehicle charging station, frontage enhancements and several renovations to the nearby bus transit center.

However, Safeway never wavered from the proposed location in the southeast corner of the Washington Square Shopping Center. Its proximity to neighborhoods, ballfields and primary schools led to a fiery coalition of opponents.

On Monday, officials representing Petaluma City Schools made it clear the city’s largest district was fully opposed to the project.

“We believe it’s clear that ample, valid evidence has been provided to the city demonstrating the Safeway fuel center project will potentially cause a significant air quality impact that puts our schoolchildren, faculty, staff and parents at risk of being unacceptably exposed to air toxins,” said PCS Chief Business Official Chris Thomas.

Still, several speakers lent support to the project. Mark Friedman, whose family owns the shopping center, irked multiple council members at the dais by describing the project’s opponents as “emotional.”

“It’s important to separate emotions from facts,” he said. “Feelings, no matter how strongly they are felt, cannot substitute for facts. And a last-minute data dump at the end of six years of study does not constitute evidence.”

The project will pass hands to the incoming city council, one with a progressive lean led by Mayor-elect Teresa Barrett, and including council members-elect Kevin McDonnell and D’Lynda Fischer.

Barrett criticized the project’s inability to conform to a more agreeable proposal, or to move the site farther from a collection of primary schools. That sort of obduracy impacted the developers of Deer Creek, Barrett said, pointing to a shopping center farther north on McDowell Boulevard where housing suggestions were once ignored and are now being pursued after longstanding vacancies consumed the lot.

“I have felt from the beginning that this project does not make sense,” Barrett said. “When there is a ruling saying a school should not be put close to a gas station, the reciprocal of that should also just make logical sense. It’s not like Safeway hasn’t been asked to put that gas station – if they need to have it there – at some other place in their huge parking lot. They chose not to take that approach.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)