Is the Dutra asphalt plant still coming to Petaluma?

After stalling out during the permitting phase, Dutra’s project has been forgotten by locals – but not by the company.|

Just south of Petaluma’s city limit, bordering the Petaluma River and its sensitive wetlands, lies the 38-acre Haystack Landing property, focus of a long and bitter fight over whether a company called Dutra Materials should be allowed to build an asphalt plant there.

For many local residents, who adamantly opposed the proposal and spent years organizing against it, the project has since faded away, with little to no action taken at the property. Facebook groups dissolved, community meetings ceased, and the once-ubiquitous “No Dutra” lawn signs were tossed out or stowed away.

But for the Dutra Group, the San Rafael parent company of the asphalt maker and aggregate supplier Dutra Materials, the plan to build an asphalt plant there is still a go.

One of the most disputed industrial projects in recent county history, it was approved on a 3-2 vote of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors 13 years ago before getting tangled up in the permitting process.

"This local source of asphalt production will restore our wetlands, bolster our climate resilience, and keep our economy moving for generations to come,“ reads a current Dutra website for the plant.

The company site bills the project as the “Haystack Landing Wetland Restoration,” and claims it will have “no wetland impacts.”

That claim is based on a 2019 revision to its original plan, with changes the company says will enhance the nearby Petaluma River area by incorporating “flood control, fire prevention, and preservation of a local source of construction materials to keep Sonoma County’s economy strong.”

Dutra’s revised plan also includes space for a new station for the San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department.

The revised project will “restore a mosaic of wetland habitats and biologic diversity commonly found in Bay fringe landscapes by regrading current non-wetland areas to support hydrologic conditions for the formation of seasonal wetlands,” Aimi Dutra, the company’s public relations director, wrote in an email to the Argus-Courier.

Dutra said the company’s proposal would create 3.11 acres of new wetlands, enhance another 11.87 acres of wetlands, construct a quarter-acre of landscaped berm, and carry out 8.43 acres of native plantings and invasive species control.

But local environmentalists, who have opposed the project for the nearly two decades since its initial proposal, are calling this new iteration of Dutra’s plan a “greenwashing campaign.”

“This is not the project that belongs on the Petaluma River,” said David Keller, a former Petaluma councilman and founder of the Petaluma River Council and board member of the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League.

But Aimi Dutra said the new asphalt plant would reduce “truck traffic, emissions and (greenhouse gases). It’s undisputed.”

“Dutra has protected and enhanced the wetlands and with the minor revision is now completely avoiding any impacts to wetlands,” she added. “That’s not greenwashing. That is a fact.”

Facts in dispute

Dutra’s first contention, of reducing emissions and greenhouse gases, stems from the proposed asphalt plant’s proximity to local building and street projects — which would theoretically reduce the number of miles asphalt would have to be hauled to those destinations.

Sonoma County recently announced plans to repair 50 miles of county-owned roads this summer as part of a $29 million program, leading to a projected increased demand for road-building material.

The second contention, that the asphalt plant would have no impacts on the Petaluma River or its wetlands, is harder to prove. And environmentalists including Keller and Joan Cooper, a spokesperson for Friends of Shollenberger, are renewing their call to reject the plant as a polluter and a danger to both wildlife and human health.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t be a polluter and an environmentalist,” said Cooper, who described asphalt production as a “highly toxic, dangerous activity.”

Asphalt can be produced a variety of ways, but it is generally recognized by scientists to be a source of emissions — including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and carbon monoxide — that are harmful to human health and the environment.

A 2020 Science magazine article, for example, cites a Yale study suggesting that “fresh asphalt is a significant, yet overlooked, source of air pollution.”

Keller noted that the wetlands at Petaluma's Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek Trail have been included on the Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance, an international list of critical wetlands worth protecting. The marshland, he said, is a “national and international treasure.”

“An asphalt factory located in the marsh would be an insult, and spew substantial damages to our heritage,” Keller said.

Permitting process

Dutra first proposed its asphalt plant in 2004, to the dismay of thousands of Petaluma residents who opposed a heavy industrial facility at the city’s southern gateway and along a mostly undeveloped stretch of its tidal waterway.

But in December 2010, following years of debate, the proposal was formally approved by a sharply divided Board of Supervisors. The three-member majority included, Mike Kerns the south county supervisor at the time, Paul Kelley and Efren Carrillo.

Opponents filed a lawsuit but the project approval was upheld in court, allowing Dutra to move forward in seeking permits from several agencies.

From there, the process seems to have stalled for years.

In a 2017 interview with the Argus-Courier, a county planner said the county was withholding the final grading permit for the plant until the company obtained necessary permits from a long list of agencies: the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The air quality district issued Dutra a permit to construct the project, but not a permit to operate an asphalt plant. As of 2018, several other permits were missing as well, with the agencies requesting more complete information from the company.

“There is a level of arrogance that has surrounded Dutra’s applications to the county and other governing bodies,” Keller said at the time. “They have acted like they are entitled to this.”

In 2019, Dutra revised its proposal to state that it would eliminate impacts to Petaluma River wetlands as well as improve nearby habitats. In response, the Corps of Engineers said the project “will not result in the placement of fill materials within waters or wetlands” and therefore did not need further approval from that agency.

Similarly, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board determined in 2019 that the altered project would not trigger a finding that would mandate water quality or waste discharge requirements under state law, according to Keith Lichten, watershed management division manager with the water board.

“As far as we are aware, the proposal to construct the asphalt plant will not result in the discharge of fill into jurisdictional waters,” Lichten said in an email.

Dutra’s path was not yet cleared, however. In 2022, Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county planning and building agency, sent a letter stating that if Dutra wished to incorporate the project changes into its proposal, the company needed to apply to modify its county use permit — one of the documents approved by the Board of Supervisors when it signed off on the project in 2010.

“The proposed project modifications substantially changed elements of the original project that had made it river dependent, as required by the County’s General Plan, and made several other changes to the project analyzed in the certified Environmental Impact Report,“ Wick wrote in his Oct. 21, 2022 letter. ”There are other conditions related to traffic, biology, noise, residences no longer present, and others that the application should address for removal or modification.“

Wick added, “The Dutra Group obtained entitlements to go down one path, and now wants to go down another one. Neither County Code nor CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) allow project amendments such as these to be authorized without going through the appropriate amendment process.”

On Wednesday, Bradley Dunn, Permit Sonoma’s policy manager, said in an email that Dutra had appealed Wick’s determination letter, and that “an appeal would be heard by the Board of Zoning Adjustment, though a date for hearing that appeal has not yet been set.”

Cloudy future

It remains unclear where Dutra’s project is currently headed, and whether the company will get clearance to build an asphalt plant on the banks of the Petaluma River.

For its part, Dutra says the company is “continuing to work with the county to ensure the project satisfies the conditions of approval in order to proceed with construction.”

“We have submitted a grading permit and are working with the county to better understand next steps,” Aimi Dutra said.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who joined the board in 2011, after the vote on the project, confirmed the county is still in those conversations with Dutra. But he was also unsure of when, or if, next steps will occur.

“It’s a very complicated project,” Rabbitt said. “Obviously the project has been through the wringer.”

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District said it issued a construction permit for the Dutra project on Dec. 14, 2021, at which point the company has two years to act — unless it submits a request to extend the permit.

“Once the equipment has been constructed and a startup notification received by the Air District, the Air District will review for compliance with the issued permit conditions and applicable air regulations,” said Ralph Borrmann, spokesperson with the air district. “If deemed in compliance, permits to operate will be issued.”

Requests for comment sent to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were not immediately returned.

Meanwhile, Keller and Cooper said they would like to move into another stage of community involvement on the project: to purchase “the 39 acres from Dutra and preserve the gateway to the city and to the county,” Cooper said.

“We are very seriously hoping that we put together a coalition of funders and they make viable offers to Dutra and close this chapter.”

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at or 707-521-5208.

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