Want to build a retail complex in Petaluma?

The process is now clear. First, you hold countless meetings with city officials, neighbors and other community groups. Next you spend large amounts of time and money completing all of the necessary environmental and planning documentation and wait months for final approval by the City Council.

Then, when everything appears to be complete, you write a fat check to the Petaluma Neighborhood Association — and perhaps some other groups — to prevent an appeal or a potential lawsuit that's certain to delay the start of construction and drive up costs.

In some parts of the country, it's known as a shakedown. In Petaluma, it's becoming the price of admission.

This is the case even for a project involving Friedman's, the locally owned and operated hardware store that got its start in Petaluma in 1946 and has been looking for an opportunity to return to its roots. Given that many Petalumans have been eager to see the return of a large-scale hardware store to town, one would think that having Friedman's as the anchor tenant in the Deer Creek Village project would be a good fit.

Not so.

The 344,000-square-foot shopping center targeted for vacant land at North McDowell Boulevard and Rainier Avenue had already been approved. Nevertheless, the builders, Merlone Geier Partners, ended up agreeing to a $191,000 settlement with the Petaluma Neighborhood Association to prevent a lawsuit that would slow the project down.

Two years ago, the same group obtained a three-way settlement with the city and developers of the Target-anchored East Washington Place shopping center. That deal netted the two primary leaders of the Petaluma Neighborhood Association — Paul Francis and Matt Maguire — $100,000 in cash in addition to $50,000 for legal fees. Their only obligation concerning how the money would be spent was that it couldn't be used to stop the Target project.

In addition, the developer paid $32,000 for the city's legal costs and put $40,000 toward traffic improvements on East Washington or in the nearby East D Street neighborhood.

At least in this case, there's no cash payout involved.

As part of the latest settlement, Merlone Geier will pay for $110,000 in improvements to the Lynch Creek bike and pedestrian trail, install traffic calming measures on Rushmore Avenue and put in crosswalks and pedestrian signals at Rainier Avenue and Maria Drive.

In addition, the developer agreed to pay $36,000 toward the Petaluma Neighborhood Association's legal costs, $30,000 to a city tree-planting fund, $25,000 to the Petaluma River Heritage Center and $10,000 to Heritage Homes of Petaluma.

These contributions to outside groups will, no doubt, be a community benefit. But it's important to note that these groups weren't objecting to the Deer Creek Village project because it wasn't providing enough funds for the Heritage Center. They were opposing it because of its size and location and its proximity to another hot-button issue — the Rainier Avenue cross-town connector.

If these groups felt they had a good legal case, they should have seen it through. The only victory here is that the project will be allowed to break ground soon. The loss is that, once again the message goes out to prospective businesses that it's not enough to read the planning documents to know whether you will be allowed in Petaluma. You may have to write some rather large checks. How much and how many will be determined at a much later date.