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After receiving hundreds of pages of documents in the past week protesting the proposed Deer Creek Village shopping center, the Petaluma City Council on Monday night agreed to postpone a critical hearing on the project.

The council was set to evaluate the final environmental impact report on the shopping center, essentially the deciding factor on whether the project will be allowed.

But two large document submissions came in from law firms representing neighborhood groups that oppose the center, raising the specter of lawsuits.

Deer Creek Village is planned as 344,000 square feet of retail, recreational and office uses at North McDowell Boulevard and Rainier Avenue. Friedman's Home Improvement this month signed a long-term lease to become the anchor tenant, replacing Lowe's, which pulled out in October.

Holding up a 3-inch-thick stack of papers Monday night, City Attorney Eric Danly said he was ready to recommend delaying the hearing based on the "extensive number of documents and comments and attachments and facts" submitted between last Tuesday and 4:15 p.m. Monday — just more than two hours before the hearing was to begin.

But shortly before 6 p.m., developer Merlone Geier Partners of San Francisco agreed with Danly's assessment and asked the council to postpone the hearing until the documents could be reviewed.

The council voted 6-1, with Councilwoman Teresa Barrett dissenting, to delay the hearing to 6 p.m. April 2.

Merlone Geier spokesman Marko Mlikotin said the decision was disappointing but came "out of an abundance of caution and fear of potential litigation."

The city received 74 pages of arguments against the project on Feb. 21 from the Petaluma Neighborhood Association, which had sued the city to try to stop the now-approved East Washington Place shopping center that will include a Target store.

A law firm representing ex-Councilwoman Janice Cader-Thompson, her husband and the Park Place Neighborhood Association submitted more than 100 pages Friday.

And ex-Councilwoman Pam Torliatt submitted another stack of documents with 14 attachments between noon and 3:15 p.m. Monday, Danly said.

Many of the documents included city records about the Rainier overpass, underpass or interchange as the city has discussed it over the years. The city Planning Commission ruled the Deer Creek EIR inadequate last month, citing a lack of funding for a Rainier project and traffic impacts related to it.

Danly said many of the documents overlapped and "a lot of it is misconstrued" and should be corrected.

It "may even be strategic to try to delay the proceeding," he said.

Mayor David Glass said it was in the "best legal interest" of the city to postpone the hearing so that the documents could be "properly vetted to protect the city's interests."

"Under no circumstances did I or any member of the City Council take any action to delay" the hearing, he said, in reference to some residents' complaints about the city's planning process.

Cader-Thompson, who was booed by someone in the audience, said she would like to sit down with the developer and city leaders to come up with a redesigned project "we can live with."

Merlone Geier has been working with the city since 2008 to develop the property, 36.5 acres along Highway 101 that was envisioned as a large shopping center in the city's general plan updated that year.