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Petaluma approves controversial apartments

Petaluma’s fourth appeal attempting to overturn a municipal decision in the last year was met with a swift denial Monday when the city council voted against a group of east Petaluma residents hoping to lessen the perceived impacts of a proposed apartment project for Ellis Street.

In two separate votes, the council voted 5-1 against a joint appeal filed by residents Roxanna Marinak and Anne Windsor, who live next door to the 13-unit DeCristo housing project slated for 109 Ellis Street, and 6-0 against Kenneth Henry, a resident at the nearby Martin Farms subdivision.

Councilman Kevin McDonnell, who reviewed the project twice this year as the planning commission liaison involved with the site plans approvals in June, the decision that ultimately sparked the appeals, was absent.

The only dissenting vote was from Councilman Mike Healy, who underscored the issues raised by Marinak and Windsor. He felt the project should, in fact, require a shadow study to assess the impact of adding three-story buildings beside properties that only had two, and that granting a state-mandated concession to reduce parking from 25 spaces to 22 would create enough spillover to further stress a street shared by McKinley Elementary School.

“Maybe my argument is with state density bonus law,” Healy said, “but I would think a developer wanting to have a long-term, successful project would not choose that concession and under-park the project by three spaces.”

Marinak and Windsor said they filed their appeal on behalf of the nine homeowners in the neighboring complex, worried that adding three, three-story buildings on the parcel behind their residences would greatly diminish the amount of sunlight they’ve grown accustomed to receiving over the years.

City regulations don’t require a shadow study unless the development standards for that area call for one, and the majority of officials that reviewed the project at four public hearings over the last five months felt it wasn’t necessary.

The DeCristo buildings would be at least 31 feet away from the property line due to a driveway into the complex. Planning officials also contended that the orientation of the buildings would mitigate any excessive shading.

Marinak didn’t mince words when addressing the council, describing the DeCristo project as a “gentrification” effort in a neighborhood consisting of predominantly working-class households.

“This is about real lives of ordinary people who live on this very small, low-income, overcrowded street,” Marinak said. “It’s my perspective that this is a land grab with a very small piece of property that developers want to squeeze in as much as they can with no regard for their neighbors, or the devastating environmental impact it will have on the street, which is already under great stress.”

Project architect Jerry Kler of Sausalito rejected Marinak’s characterization of the development, and was critical of the architects that designed her property in the 1980s, siting buildings along the boundaries of the parcel that would undoubtedly create tension with the next developer.

Kler asserted that the development team had crafted the proposal thoughtfully given the positions of the buildings, the driveway that provides separation, and an abundance of landscaping throughout.

“We looked at that when we started the project, and we said, ‘The least we can do for 101 Ellis is to try and keep our project as far away as we can,’” Kler said. “And we did that. We don’t expect any thanks for that, but we tried to do it.”

Henry’s appeal was focused on the unfettered public access to his private road, Martin Circle, that was constructed for his subdivision, but has since become a shortcut for drivers avoiding congestion.

Even though a condition of approval for the project curbed the use of the street for construction vehicles, he wanted stronger enforcement for uses beyond that as the residential street continues to deteriorate.

Police and planning officials said they would meet with residents of Martin Farms to try and identify a path to mitigating the excessive use of a private drive that’s connected to a major thoroughfare in East Washington Street.

Mayor Teresa Barrett also recommended Henry get in touch with the McKinley administration to get a reminder out to parents that Martin Circle is off limits.

“We constantly get this shortcut over to the apartment complex or to Ellis,” Henry said. “We’re having the school people drive through our complex in the morning and wait for their children at the school. Our roadway is damaged, and it’s in bad need of repair.”

The DeCristo apartments will be priced at a market-rate, although one unit will be set aside for very-low income households.

Eighteen of the parking spaces are in ground-floor garages, each equipped with infrastructure to support electric vehicle chargers if the tenants choose to install them. Two of the four outdoors spaces will be EV charging stations.

The entire property, except for the water heaters, will be run on electricity as opposed to natural gas. Kler also intends to add solar arrays at some point.

Each building will contain eight stalls for bicycles, a total of 24 for the entire complex. An eight-foot-wide pedestrian trail will provide access to Washington Creek, which runs along the northeastern edge of the parcel.

Barrett said she was sympathetic to the concerns raised by the appellants next door, and was optimistic that the design of the DeCristo development, specifically the 31-foot driveway, should make for a less impactful experience.

“I do think it may not be as bad as you think it is,” she said. “Infill is a bloody business. But we want it, and we also want it to go high rather than go low. We don’t want sprawl.”

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

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