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Petaluma approves Safeway gas station over objections

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After months of false starts and repeat hearings, the Petaluma City Council capitulated to Safeway at a tense meeting Monday night, and denied a citizens’ appeal of the supermarket chain’s controversial gas station project.

Once the verdict was reached, emotions spilled over for many of the project’s opponents, who have spent almost a year fighting a proposal for eight pumps and 16 fuel dispensers on the corner of Maria Drive and McDowell Boulevard, approximately 60 feet from daycares, an elementary school and a little league field.

Proponents welcomed the prospect of a discount gas option in a city where gas prices are above the regional average.

Many audience members disregarded decorum and jeered at a council that had been backed into a corner by Safeway’s legal team, which has ramped up threats of litigation since the planning commission narrowly approved the project last June.

A few residents even confronted Safeway attorney Matthew Francois after the meeting, prompting Petaluma Police to provide some of the project reps with an escort out of City Hall.

“We’re excited the Petaluma City Council approved the Safeway gas station at Washington Square,” Safeway spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall said in a statement. “Our sincere thanks to everyone who supported this effort. We look forward to bringing this new addition to the Petaluma community.”

No Gas Here co-founder JoAnn McEachin, who authored the appeal, said she was saddened by the shortcomings of her elected leaders.

The council voted 4-1 to uphold the planning commission’s verdict, and reversed their initial decision to require an environmental impact report. Mayor Teresa Barrett cast the dissenting vote, and council members Gabe Kearney and Kathy Miller recused themselves after Safeway levied allegations of bias.

“I’m disappointed,” McEachin said. “I’m disappointed that big money wins. Unfortunately Petaluma is broke and doesn’t have the money to fight a lawsuit.”

McEachin said that she needed to discuss potential next steps with her lawyer before commenting on how No Gas Here would respond.

Last month Safeway sent a draft complaint to city officials, threatening to file the legal precursor if the council held firm on an EIR. The council voted unanimously in favor of a comprehensive, third-party environmental review on Dec. 3, the first of what would be four hearings in three months on the controversial project.

In all, the council has taken seven different actions since the appeal forced Petaluma’s elected board to weigh in last summer.

After the EIR was ordered, Safeway accused the city of violating public meeting requirements under the Brown Act, leading to a duplicate hearing on Jan. 28 where Francois presented a new legal precedent, McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group v. City of St. Helena, that restricted the council’s authority to design aspects under the California Environmental Quality Act.

With no new interpretations of case law to lean on and every parliamentary loophole exhausted, the council reluctantly approved the project, acknowledging the gap in local regulations that Safeway had exploited to earn its approval.

“I don’t think this is the appropriate place for a gas station, and I don’t think that we should be putting gas stations in our town,” said Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer. “I want our zoning code to change and General Plan to change so that uses like this that are so yesterday do not continue to happen.”

Several council members called for changes to antiquated aspects of the zoning code, which had constricted the city’s authority since Safeway first proposed the project in 2013.

The site, located in the southeast corner of the Washington Square Shopping Center, is zoned for commercial use, including gas stations.

In March 2014, Petaluma officials tried to pass a moratorium on gas station development in order to address some of its outdated zoning rules, but it was widely criticized.

Councilman Mike Healy, Kearney and Miller voted in favor of it, but Barrett, who expressed her own conflict that night even as an opponent of the project, condemned it as “designer legislation.”

“Unfortunately none of the other council members at the time were willing to support that (moratorium), and that was really our last opportunity to have the ability to impact this proposal,” Healy said. “Ever since that night I was expecting this night to come.”

The current building, the former home of Pepper’s Restaurant and other small businesses, will be demolished before construction begins.

The project includes a 697-square foot convenience store, one electric vehicle station and upgrades to the nearby transit site. The city slapped numerous conditions onto the adopted resolution, emphasizing traffic flow and ways to curb its impact on nearby residents.

Now that the site plan and environmental mitigations are clear of public debate, the city’s role will be limited to administrative aspects of the development process.

“Every bit of logic tells me that an environmental impact report should be required for projects like this, and I hope that going forward, our General Plan and zoning laws change to allow such an action,” said Councilman Dave King. “I felt we had no alternative here tonight.”

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

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