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Affordable, local gas option

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It’s another gorgeous summer in Northern California. The sun is out and it’s a great time to visit the coast or wine country, or to just drive to a nearby park and barbecue. There aren’t many places in the country that are better for a road trip than ours. And there are even fewer where it’s more expensive to buy a tank of gas.

Now, we all know that California has some of the highest gas prices in the country and that costs in the Bay Area are even higher. But if you’ve ever filled up in Petaluma, you’ll know gas prices here are off the charts. Petalumans pay more for gas than a whopping 99.6 percent of their fellow Americans. And within our region, Petalumans consistently pay at least 10 cents more per gallon — or $2 to 3 million more per year — than their neighbors in the North Bay.

It’s no surprise that more and more locals are leaving town to fill up. According to a recent survey of over 500 Petaluma residents, 67 percent of respondents are concerned about the increasing cost of gas and 52 percent say they often travel to other cities to buy gas because it’s too expensive in Petaluma. As families and those on fixed incomes grapple with the rising cost of living, it’s clear that trips to the local gas station aren’t helping.

At Washington Square, we hear these concerns all the time from our customers. It’s precisely why we’ve worked so hard for so long to bring a new affordable gas option to our shopping center. Safeway gas stations are widely popular across the country, providing an affordable gas option for all consumers, and even further savings to shoppers registered to earn Safeway’s Gas Rewards. It’s no surprise that since we first started exploring the addition of a Safeway gas station in 2013, over 2,000 residents have signed a petition expressing support.

Unfortunately, despite the proposal’s popularity with the public, and its status as a permitted use under the City zoning code, the project has endured an unprecedented amount of red tape and delay. In 2014, a few politicians attempted an outright ban on all new gas stations citywide, a remarkable overreach that was quickly abandoned under public scrutiny. Later that year, they tried to levy a preposterous 14,000 percent increase in city fees on the project, before once again pulling back when legally questioned.

As time has passed, and the cost of living has continued to rise, awareness and support for the project has only grown. In that same recent survey of more than 500 Petaluma residents, 68 percent were familiar with the Safeway gas station project and respondents expressed support by a 55 percent to 35 percent margin.

Amid public debate about the project, both community members and policymakers raised fair and reasonable questions about the station’s potential impact on the neighborhood and environment. Time and time again, Safeway and Washington Square have carefully listened and responded, commissioning 14 independent analyses that consistently affirm that the project meets all thresholds for air quality, traffic, and public health and safety. In turn, city staff duly reviewed all the data and recommended the project for approval.

We’ve also listened to the community. We’ve conducted surveys, held community open houses, met with the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, school leaders, families and neighbors. The result is over 60 specific enhancements and alterations to our original plans to ensure the project integrates safely and seamlessly into the shopping center and surrounding neighborhood.

The Safeway gas station will utilize state of the art technology to monitor and protect air and soil quality, and construction equipment with stricter emission standards known as Tier 3. We’ll add additional street trees and drought-resistant landscaping, replace public sidewalks and make long-overdue ADA improvements to the intersection of South McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive to enhance pedestrian safety.

We’ll rebuild the Eastside Transit Center, creating a dedicated bus stop within the shopping center so buses no longer park on Maria Drive.

We’ll install an electric vehicle charging station and preserve flexibility to add even more in the future. And while several existing gas stations in Petaluma operate 24 hours per day and sell alcohol, Safeway has agreed to limit station hours and prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages.

In short, this project has been thoroughly analyzed, debated and vetted. With city staff’s recommendation in hand, the city’s Planning Commission finally approved the project last month.

We thank the Commission for doing the right thing and approving the project. We are ready to move forward in a spirit of cooperation and partnership with our neighbors. We hope others in the community are ready to do the same.

(Mark Friedman is president of Fulcrum, a Sacramento development firm.)