Petaluma OK sought for Riverfront project amid union opposition

Petaluma council’s final approval sought on environmental impact report, zoning of Riverfront development as trade union group pushes to stop project|

The face of a little baseball player on the verge of tears juxtaposed with scary looking 50-gallon drums strewn about a field is a powerful image, one meant to raise safety concerns about a planned hotel and residential project in Petaluma.

But is it accurate? Or is it a union blackmail tactic to force the developer to agree to hire only union labor for its 39-acre plan?

On Monday night, the Petaluma City Council will be asked to approve the final environmental impact report and zoning maps for Riverfront, a plan for a 120-room hotel, commercial and office space, 4 acres of parks and trails, 273 housing units including townhouses, live-work units and apartments, and space for a community boathouse.

A group led by trade union leaders, including Jack Buckhorn of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Santa Rosa, bought ad space with the sad Little Leaguer’s image asking community members to stop the project.

Buckhorn said the group, called Petaluma Residents for Responsible Development, is simply concerned about the safety of construction workers and that of future residents or park users. They say lead and arsenic in the soil needs to be further studied.

But developer Basin Street Properties and others say the move is thinly veiled extortion to guarantee union jobs.

Other than the unions, the project has received almost no public opposition - remarkable in a town where large-scale development nearly always draws resistance and often threats of lawsuits.

“We believe this a high-quality project, one that has been well received by the community at all the different hearings we’ve been to and one we hope will be well received by the City Council,” said Basin Street’s attorney, Paul Andronico.

The project site is west of Highway 101, between Lakeville Street and the Petaluma River, east of the Pomeroy property and the city animal shelter.

The opposition group, which represents trades workers and the Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, has never protested before in Petaluma. Its Sacramento law firm has sent the city letters outlining concerns about levels of lead and arsenic in the soil on the Riverfront site.

Buckhorn denied the opposition is simply to lock down a project labor agreement, a deal between unions and the developer to use only local unions for construction work.

“We’ve believed from the start there were problems at the site,” he said. “We want good jobs. We want a clean site and we want to protect the community. Do you want your son playing ball on that field, kicking up dust from contaminated soil?”

Andronico declined to directly comment on the group’s motives, but said no agreement on union labor has been reached.

“There were negotiations,” he said. “They approached us and we had several negotiating sessions with them. We made a significant proposal for a project labor agreement of significant scope and they rejected it.”

Buckhorn said the group supports labor work at the site, but primarily wants a safe workplace.

Basin Street often uses local union labor, Andronico said, and is currently on the Cyan expansion on Old Redwood Highway at North McDowell Boulevard.

Kevin Dayton, who runs a consulting firm that tracks what he calls abuses of the California Environmental Quality Act, accuses the local group of “targeting the developer for a project labor agreement.” He said using environmental protection laws as legal leverage to force developers into labor concessions is becoming common throughout the state.

He said he will ask the City Council to reject the threat on behalf of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, which fights lobbyist-brokered labor agreements.

The EIR concludes any soil contamination is below danger levels, which Councilman Mike Healy said outweighs the unions’ concerns.

“The union guys are upset because they were hoping to get jobs out of the Target and Friedman’s centers, when for the most part, those workers came in from the valley,” he said. “On this project, they’ve gone all in on a non-issue.”

The meeting begins at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 11 English St.

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or On Twitter @loriacarter.

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