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Temporary ban on Petaluma gas stations fails

The Petaluma City Council on Monday night rejected a proposed moratorium on gas stations that would have prohibited Safeway from building a fueling station in front of its North McDowell Boulevard store.

A temporary urgency ordinance – commonly called a moratorium – would have required the approval of six of seven council members.

As council members began discussing the issue, it soon became clear that Councilman Mike Healy, who sought the moratorium, wouldn't even get a majority on his side. In a straw vote, only Healy, Gabe Kearney and Kathy Miller supported a 45-day ban to buy the council time to craft tighter regulations on gas stations.

"We should just follow the process we already have in place," said Councilman Mike Harris, saying businesses should be able to rely on existing rules when they "make investments in our community."

Councilwoman Teresa Barrett was conflicted in her vote. She said she opposes the gas station project on whole, but doesn't support blanket bans.

"I don't like moratoriums in general," she said. "I could support some for legitimate, really serious reasons...This is sort of designer legislation: 'We don't like this project, so what can we do to make it go away?' That's just not right."

Issues like air quality, noise, light, traffic and safety near school zones can be handled through the normal planning and environmental review, Planning Manager Heather Hines said.

Safeway applied in July to build a gas station at the front of the Washington Square Shopping Center, where a gas station is permitted by existing zoning.

Initially, other gas station owners in town voiced opposition to the plan out of fear that Safeway would sell below-cost gasoline or offer deep discounts to grocery club shoppers. Later, nearby residents and others concerned about air quality and traffic congestion also voiced opposition.

Meanwhile, Safeway gathered support from its shoppers and motorists who welcome additional competition in Petaluma's gasoline market.

A lawfirm representing Safeway wrote a strongly worded 16-page letter arguing that a temporary ban on its existing application wouldn't pass legal muster.

Safeway, which has operated a grocery store in Petaluma since 1929, proposes a station with eight double-sided fuel pumps under a canopy, with a charging station or electric vehicles.

The company said it will generate about $400,000 in new tax revenue for the city, although the basis for that estimate was unclear.

Healy proposed a moratorium on gas stations because of what he characterized as unfair competition Safeway would create for other gas station operators and other grocers. He wanted the council to temporarily ban all gas stations – although Safeway is the only application being processed – so the council could consider tighter regulations.

While the temporary ban failed, the project itself still must go through the planning process at the Planning Commission. Decisions there can be appealed to the council.

Several council members said they would be interested in fine-tuning the city's regulations on gas stations or on air quality rules in general.

Longer-term options could include prohibiting all new gas stations, requiring new stations to have a conditional use permit, limiting the number of pumps at new stations or expanding the definition of "gas station" to address specific project impacts.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

Lori A. Carter

 Sonoma County courts and Rohnert Park, The Press Democrat

Local journalism is vital to a community's wellbeing, and that means keeping an eye on what happens in our justice system and our communities. I cover Sonoma County courts, as well as the city of Rohnert Park. In my work, I want to share the stories that affect our daily lives and, yes, maybe even rile us up. 

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