Neighbors sue to halt Safeway gas station construction in Petaluma

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A controversial Safeway gas station project is on hold pending approval of a city permit. Meanwhile, a group of residents that has filed a lawsuit to stop the east Petaluma project will likely seek a temporary injunction to pause work on the site while the case makes its way through the courts.

Save Petaluma, which is attempting to overturn the city council’s April 1 decision to deny an appeal and approve the 335 South McDowell Blvd. project, filed the suit in Sonoma County Superior Court this month, naming Petaluma as the respondent and Safeway as the real party of interest.

So far, Safeway has applied for a demolition permit for the current structure at the corner of the Washington Square Shopping Center, but the permit application is still under review, according to city officials.

Patrick Soluri, the Sacramento-based attorney representing Save Petaluma, said he will likely pursue an injunction to freeze construction efforts at the site until the case has been decided. Had Safeway been authorized and demolition had gotten underway, the corporation would have been protected under what’s known as a vested rights doctrine.

“We would seek injunctive relief if necessary to protect the citizens of Petaluma and also preserve the integrity of land-use and environmental decision-making in the city,” Soluri said in an email.

The project has divided the city with opponents saying the fuel station would damage the health of students at nearby schools, while supporters welcome the prospect of discount gas.

City Attorney Eric Danly this week addressed the allegations contained in a lawsuit, and confirmed the city’s legal fees will be covered by the supermarket chain.

The council’s goal for the project, to require a third-party environmental impact report, has been apparent since December, Danly said.

“I can’t speak for the council, but it was obvious,” Danly said. “They had already taken the action twice to order an EIR because of conflicting expert opinion in the record in terms of emissions in particular. I think that’s what they wanted to do, and it’s no secret.”

In January, the supermarket chain accused the city of failing to disclose tardy documents and amending a staff recommendation to support an EIR just before the Dec. 3 hearing, allegedly violating the Brown Act, a law that governs public meetings and requires elected officials to conduct their business in the open. That led to a redo hearing on Jan. 28.

Safeway attorney Matthew Francois, who had threatened to sue the city if the council did not approve the project, did not return a message seeking comment. Spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall did not immediately respond to inquiries this week, either.

Danly declined to answer questions about closed-session discussions, which would have provided insight into accusations that the council acted on the project by weighing the financial risks of potentially being sued by Safeway.

However, disclosures from council members at the April hearing and online indicated fiscal solvency played a role in their decision. In the petition, comments from Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer’s personal website were used to claim the city acted outside its mandate.

She wrote that the city denied the appeal due to the “threat of lawsuit from Safeway and no city funds to fight the lawsuit.”

Save Petaluma also accused the city of ignoring its civil code and discretion provided under the California Environmental Quality Act that would have provided enough authority to require an EIR.

Danly refutes the notion that the council disregarded its mandate on the dais that day. He cited the ever-changing landscape under CEQA, and the city’s history of never expanding the site plan and architectural requirements in a way that diverted from the surface language in its civil code.

That’s part of the reason why the city is currently addressing that gap in its bylaws, Danly said, and forming a gas station ordinance that would clearly define the requirements for EIR before permitting similar projects in the future.

“Since I’ve been working for the city council, I’ve never seen the council be callous in its decision-making, and I’ve always seen the council do the best in terms of protecting the public and acting in accordance with the law,” Danly said. “This is no exception. I’m proud of that fact, and don’t say it lightly.”

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

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