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Despite overwhelming opposition from Petaluma residents, Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday tentatively approved plans by Dutra Materials to construct an asphalt production plant across the Petaluma River from Shollenberger Park.

The 4-1 straw vote came at the end of a 5?-hour public hearing that echoed land use issues raised during last week's hearing on a Jess Jackson winery in Knights Valley. Both projects raised questions about the type of developments allowed under the General Plan, which supervisors approved late last year.

Shirlee Zane, newly elected 3rd District supervisor, voted against both the Dutra and Jackson proposals, saying neither project reflected area residents' views of the 2020 General Plan.

"If we put an asphalt plant at the entrance to Sonoma County, how is that going to brand us?" Zane asked her colleagues. "This board needs to ask themselves whether having an asphalt plant there merits changing our vision of Sonoma County."

However, Mike Kerns, the south county supervisor who represents the area, insisted that the Petaluma River has historically hosted industrial uses such as Shamrock Materials as well as two previous Dutra sites further upriver.

"We would not be here today if it were not (proposed) right next to Shollenberger Park," Kerns said. "This is a relocation of an existing plant, one that's had minimal complaints."

The San Rafael-based construction materials company, which receives quarry rock by barge, operated for 20 years at an upriver location and then for another three years nearby until the county shut it down last year for operating on an expired use permit. It proposes a state-of-the-art facility on a strip of land on the east side of Highway 101.

Plans include asphalt mixing, aggregate recycling and preservation of 19 acres as wetlands. The proposed site is zoned for commercial use. Approval of supervisors is needed because production of road construction material is an industrial use not allowed under the General Plan.

"It is a relocation of an existing use a half-mile away," company spokeswoman Aimi Dutra told supervisors.

Supervisor Valerie Brown said opponents failed to present any evidence of complaints with Dutra's prior operations or any data to rebut the draft environmental review that determined most of the project's effects could be mitigated.

Although Supervisor Efren Carrillo cast a preliminary vote in favor of the project, he indicated he could change his mind if his concerns about air pollution from the plant aren't satisfied. The issue is scheduled to return for a final vote March 24, after county planners incorporate a number of conditions on the project proposed by Kerns.

During the hearing, one of the longest in recent years, 52 people spoke against the project and 14 spoke in favor. About 300 people packed the supervisors' hearing room, the building's hallways and the outside plaza as fire inspectors worked to clear passageways and even indicated they might end the hearing because of overcrowding.

Petaluma Mayor Pam Torliatt led off the attack on the Dutra proposal, criticizing the environmental review for studying only air quality, noise and traffic issues at the site and not taking into account the effects on the nearby neighborhoods and the park. Torliatt is widely believed to be positioning herself to run for Kerns' seat because the 2nd District supervisor has told supporters he won't seek re-election in 2010.

"It can be moved to a different location," Torliatt said.

However, the project attracted support from construction industry leaders and workers who argued that a local supply of asphalt helps to reduce project costs and reduce air pollutants because materials didn't travel by truck.

"I am concerned about the environmental impact of not approving this plant," said Steve Geney of Petaluma, president of North Bay Construction.

You can reach Staff Writer Bleys W. Rose at 521-5431 or bleys.rose@pressdemocrat.com.