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Safeway gas station will continue through planning process

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Safeway's proposal to build a fueling station near its South McDowell Boulevard store will head back to the planning commission after the Petaluma City Council failed to pass a moratorium on gas stations that would have halted the project on Monday.

The council was divided on the issue, as was the public who came out to comment. The moratorium needed the support of six out of the seven councilmembers to pass, but only councilmembers Mike Healy, Kathy Miller and Gabe Kearney voted in favor of the idea.

"I have real concerns about a moratorium that is applied this way," said Mayor David Glass. "I don't change the rules lightly and I won't be hard-pressed to do it here."

The decision came after nearly two hours of public comment that was split between neighbors and those who expressed fears that the gas station would be detrimental to children at nearby schools, day cares and ball fields; and those who favor Safeway's discount gas program as well as representatives from Safeway.

"Many of our families walk to school and have to cross that intersection (at McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive)," said Maureen Rudder, principal of McDowell Elementary School, which is located directly across Maria Drive from the proposed station. "Would you feel comfortable sending your child to the school with all that traffic?"

Another speaker, Judy Morris, cited concerns about how high volumes of emissions affect health. "I have a lot of friends who have cancer right now, and I just don't want another gas station. You just can't let this happen."

Safeway officials pointed out that all of these issues, from fears about the impact of car emissions on the health of children at nearby schools and day cares, to neighbors' concerns about traffic and light pollution, would be vetted during the planning commission's review of the project, which is ongoing.

"We're here to say allow your (city's) process to work," said Safeway representative Matt Francois, who explained that in addition to the traffic and noise studies already completed, the planning commission requested additional health and safety reviews. "Your process actually works. It requires us to turn in studies and reports," he added.

Deputy Planning Manager Heather Hines confirmed that Safeway's application was incomplete and the city is still waiting on a variety of health and environmental reports before the planners make a final decision about the fueling station.

Safeway's proposal calls for the construction of a gas station with eight double-sided pumps, to be built under a canopy that will be erected when the building that previously held Peppers Restaurant is demolished. It was first proposed over the summer, but the council became concerned this winter when they learned that, because the project generally complies with the city's zoning ordinance, they would not have direct authority over the project unless the planning commission's decision was appealed. Had it passed, the moratorium would have given the council 45 days to change the zoning ordinance and flex more control over Safeway's project and future fueling stations.

"We're not talking about Safeway," said Kearney. "We're talking about whether we have adequate tools in our toolbox to review and make decisions on new gas stations. I'm not sure we do…"

Healy, who proposed the gas station moratorium, also expressed concerns that Safeway utilized below market "predatory pricing" to drive other gas stations out of town, which would create an "urban blight" in the city because, he said, gas stations are difficult to repurpose into new businesses. Safeway representatives denied the allegation, although other gas station owners in town confirmed that, with the discount program, Safeway's gas is sold at a loss, but compensated by its grocery sales.

"I know what the price of gas is and I know they're selling it at 50 cents below market value," said Arash Salkhi, who owns several gas stations, including one in Petaluma.

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)

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