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A Petaluma Health Care District proposal to build a Walgreens drug store and drive-through pharmacy near its hospital is setting up a showdown of conflicting goals.

The city's general plan, its guiding blueprint for development, expressly forbids new drive-thrus in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. The only exceptions are for vehicle-serving businesses such as car washes or oil-change stations.

But the health care district is arguing that its Walgreens drive-thru should be allowed because of the medical benefits of having a pharmacy easily accessible to Petaluma Valley Hospital patients.

Its supporters argue that the emissions from idling vehicles won't be significant and can be outweighed by other environmentally friendly elements of the project.

At issue is a retail development that includes a 7,500-square-foot office building and a 14,500-square-foot Walgreens with a drive-thru pharmacy. Browman Development of Walnut Creek is developing the project on district land at McDowell Boulevard and Lynch Creek Way, just south of the Deer Creek Village shopping center under construction now.

The district plans to partner with Walgreens on in-hospital and in-store programs that help patients better understand their medicines and encourages just-discharged patients to fill their prescriptions and take them properly.

The Walgreens plan, several years in the making, would require a general plan amendment to allow the drive-thru and a zoning change to mixed-use from the current business park designation.

General plan amendments are limited to four a year by state law. Petaluma hasn't approved any this year.

The city's planning commission rejected the district's application on a 5-2 vote, setting up a council discussion next month. City Council liaison Kathy Miller voted to allow the changes.

Councilman Mike Healy, who ran on a slate with Miller last election and shares many of her views, said he is keeping an open mind about the request.

"The general plan ties it to greenhouse-gas issues," Healy said. "In my mind, if there's another way to address GHG issues .... above and beyond what would be enough offset it, that's a conversation I'd be willing to have."

Some have suggested that having the request come from the health care district – a publicly elected board that collaborates on several valued social service programs in Petaluma – creates additional pressure for the City Council to grant an exception to the drive-thru prohibition.

"It shouldn't; it shouldn't," Healy said.

The planning commission last year rejected, with minimal discussion, an application by JP Morgan Chase Bank to revive its downtown drive-thru teller lanes that had been shuttered several years ago and used for employee parking.

Adding to the potential intrigue of the council's decision is input from Merlone Geier Partners, the developer of Deer Creek Village.

Merlone Geier suggested the changes requested are so significant that a full environmental impact report should be conducted, saying "the EIR must analyze the question of whether a drive-thru allowed at the Walgreens site should allow drive-thru operations throughout the city."

Merlone Geier has a building site for a potential pharmacy in Deer Creek.

Meanwhile, Walgreens has said it will not proceed with the project without approval of the drive-thru, which has become a critical part of its business.

The health care district estimates the development would create between $200,000 and $250,000 a year in revenue.

The district, created in 1946, is governed by local laws that allow such districts to build and operate hospital. Some districts are funded through voter-approved property tax assessments, although Petaluma's is not. The district relies on revenue from the LifeLine program of medical alert devices, real estate and its investment portfolio.

It owns Petaluma Valley Hospital and has leased the operations of it to St. Joseph Health since 1997.

The issue is scheduled to be discussed by the City Council on Sept. 9.

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com)