Petaluma City Council OKs environmental report for Riverfront project

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Petaluma City Council members have approved the environmental report for a proposed hotel and housing project, dismissing safety concerns raised by construction trade unions about air quality and soil contamination on the site.

The developer, Basin Street Properties, and others had said the unions’ concerns were less about lead or arsenic in the ground and more about their failure to win a project labor agreement to guarantee union work on the project.

Council members avoided that issue, but questioned planners and environmental consultants on their analysis of the soil sampling conducted on the 39-acre Riverfront property at 500 Hopper St. between Highway 101 and the Petaluma River.

Basin Street plans to build 273 residential units, 90,000 square feet of commercial space and a 120-room hotel with seven acres of open space on vacant land between the river and the highway.

In multiple public hearings, the project had attracted nearly zero public opposition except for the trade unions’ complaints. During Monday night’s meeting, which lasted until 1 a.m. Tuesday, representatives from North Bay Jobs For Justice (formerly the Living Wage Coalition) and Unite Here, the union that represents hotel workers at the Petaluma Sheraton, asked the council to push the developers to provide well-paying jobs.

A lawyer representing several construction trade unions in a group called Petaluma Residents for Responsible Development argued that the environmental analysis of the project was flawed in several ways and should be sent back for additional evaluation.

Several union members denied they were using environmental concerns to force a labor agreement.

“Union or nonunion, that’s not the issue,” said Carl Sanchez, who represented sheet metal workers. “That’s the shiny object over here to deflect what’s really going on.”

City planners and consultants said the unions’ group was misinterpreting the data, using one high test number, for example, as an indicator of widespread contamination instead of an average, which is the industry standard. The group also characterized the site as a hazardous waste dump and said it was unsafe for workers, eventual homeowners and children to be on the land.

Scientific analysis of both lead and arsenic show no safety hazards, with numbers consistent with levels naturally occurring anywhere in the Bay Area, the consultants said.

“It’s a very benign site, environmentally,” said Phillip Fitzwater of Iris Environmental testing. “It’s the same concentration of arsenic you’d have in your backyard.”

More than 30 people signed up to speak on the issue, some who supported the unions and others who supported the project and the city’s analysis of the conditions. A nonunion contractor said he resented the large unions’ “discriminatory” tactics that push out nonunion workers.

A new issue surfaced when a couple of council members wanted a turf field installed instead of the developer’s preferred natural grass field. Basin Street volunteered to give the city $125,000 to help fund other fields in town, and promised it would maintain the grass field for as much use as possible. The entire project will be watered with treated wastewater.

The council voted 5-2 to approve the environmental report, with Teresa Barrett and David Glass opposing it. Barrett wanted a turf field and Glass said he actually liked the project but was making a statement about flawed traffic analysis.

Mike Harris, Mike Healy, Kathy Miller, Gabe Kearney and Chris Albertson voted to certify the environmental report.

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