Take the Gas or Else – If Corporations are People, What Manner of Citizen is Petaluma Safeway?

Corporation repeatedly threatens litigation to compel the City of Petaluma to permit construction of a glaring environmental injustice next to a preschool for the purpose of corporate profit

City Council on the verge of approving an exclusive gift to Safeway and its corporate parent, Cerberus Capital Management

Bauer and Wolpert stand up for the Petaluma General Plan at its June 26 meeting

Word that Safeway’s proposal for a 16 pump discount gas station would be reviewed by the Petaluma City Council came as welcome relief after the disturbing news that the Petaluma Planning Commission had approved the project at its June 26 meeting really sunk in.

Safeway conceptual image of its proposed Petaluma gas station.

Thankfully Petaluma will have at least one more opportunity to prove it is well aware of the connections between burning fossil fuels and climate change; much too aware of those connections to go adding to our capacity to burn larger quantities of gasoline less expensively when we need to stop burning the stuff completely. Continuing to burn more fossil fuels as we have in the past would be the equivalent of pounding more nails into humanity’s coffin. Let’s not go building it faster and preparing to jump in with such enthusiasm. There remains time for an alternate path if we act soon.

It will now be up to the council to prove that it is not only familiar with the Petaluma General Plan 2025 and the considerable community wisdom contained therein, but also to show that it is aware of how deplorable a racial and environmental injustice it would be to locate this gas station across the street from the 4Cs Petaluma Child Development Center preschool and McDowell Elementary School. California law will no longer allow a school to be situated in such close proximity to a gas station, yet apparently it remains legal to build a gas station that close to an already-established school. Given McDowell’s majority minority population and the abundance of research on the subject over the past half-century, if this gas station were to be approved it seems virtually certain it will one day be cited in social science texts on the stubborn persistence of racial and environmental inequities in city planning in early 21st century California.

How about we skip the infamy and not go there?

Back in May of 2016, after hearing a Regional Climate Protection Authority presentation to the Petaluma City Council, councilmember and current mayoral candidate Teresa Barrett summed up RCPA director Lauren Casey’s presentation with a reminder that the region had already taken most of the voluntary, inexpensive and easiest-to-accomplish steps to curtail greenhouse gas emissions that it could take. Much of the remaining reductions in emissions will have to come from the local level, with transportation being the source of over half the county’s emissions.

“I think we all know that the low-hanging fruit has been picked,” stated Barrett. 

Adding a 16 pump discount gas station to the city’s transportation infrastructure, increasing our retail gasoline supply for the exclusive benefit of Safeway grocery customers who purchase enough groceries to earn a discount clearly leads us in the wrong direction.

Suzanne Somers in a ’56 Ford Thunderbird, as seen in American Graffiti

Petaluma has long been fascinated with automobiles and now has a thriving car scene of obvious cultural and economic benefit. We launched the careers of George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus and Suzanne Somers with 1973’s American Graffiti, the film that showed how outrageously cool cruising the boulevard could be, and now we’ve turned it into an annual event. We’ve still got the Petaluma Speedway most weekends and the Sunday Cruise In at Fourth And Sea the end of every month. We love our cars. Most of us. Maybe just some of us. But while we celebrate and pay tribute to the hot rods of our past, we have to deal with what is, and prepare for the future just like everyone else, one reason why the Petaluma Planning Commission’s second meeting in June was so frustrating. Where’s the future in new retail gasoline?

The June 26, 2018 Meeting of the Petaluma Planning Commission

With a 4-3 vote on June 26, the planning commission narrowly approved Safeway’s controversial project, with the city council’s representative on the commission, then-Vice Mayor Mike Healy, stating that “I know the public’s disappointed. But I feel like my hands are tied on this” as he voted to approve the project. 

Nick Carter of Fulcrum Property Group, owners of the Washington Square shopping center, told the commission “I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone here that Californians pay some of the highest gasoline prices in the nation, or that Bay Area residents pay some of the highest gas prices in California, and we also found that Petaluma residents pay a premium for gas when compared to other cities in the region. We estimate that premium for gas costs Petaluma residents an estimated $2-3 million a year, and of course that money could be used to support other local businesses.”

In addition, we procured a poll of 502 residents from FM3 Research to test our assumptions and the results are displayed before you.

67% of Petaluma residents are concerned about increasing cost of gas in Petaluma. 52% of respondents travel to other cities to buy gas because Petaluma is too expensive, and in general there is both strong awareness and support for the project based on poll results.

Commissioner Scott Alonso would later have much to say on the topic of Safeway’s poll.

Leading supermarkets in the U.S. based on sales, 2017. Safeway is owned by the Albertsons corporation, which is owned by Cerberus Capital Management. Albertsons was the second largest grocery chain in the United States in 2017, with over $57 billion in sales. Obviously this chart excludes mixed retailers such as WalMart. Image via Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/197899/2010-sales-of-supermarket-chains-in-the-us/

Natalie Mattei, Senior Real Estate Manager with Safeway, played the role of sympathetic mother and consumer:

I am a mom, and I can appreciate wanting to make sure my kid to be safe. I wouldn’t, even though I work for Safeway I wouldn’t be representing this project if I didn’t believe in it.

Safeway has met all the requirements that are required. We’ve gone above and beyond. I believe this is the most studied gas station perhaps in our history, certainly in Petaluma history. At a minimum – I think there have been more, but at a minimum, there have been thirteen independent reviews that conclude the project meets all guidelines for health, safety, traffic and the environment.

I think there is a clear need; this is what we hear repeatedly from our customers – of the desire for a Safeway gas station.

Mattei closed by quoting Petaluma City Councilmember Mike Healy, speaking during the “last campaign season”:

“You have to make it clear that City Hall believes in its General Plan and Zoning Ordinance and if someone proposes something that is consistent with the zoning, they should expect to get an approval as opposed to that just being a starting point for an argument.”

City Attorney Eric Danly and Senior Planner Heather Hines took the opportunity after Mattei concluded her presentation to point out that the applicant had taken a nearly two year hiatus from pursuing the project in the period from 2015 to 2017, so Mattei’s previous, repeated emphasis on the long, drawn-out nature of the approval process for this project left out significant and important detail.

Public commentary at this meeting was almost entirely opposed to the project, with residents primarily raising concerns over health and quality of life issues.

Adriann Saslow was one of those Petaluma residents who spoke out against this project when it first came up in 2014, “so I haven’t wanted it for years.” Saslow spoke eloquently about the numerous ways in which the Safeway gas station contradicted fundamental principles of the Petaluma General Plan 2025 (PGP).

I love living in Petaluma with my husband, my three year old girl, my baby boy. I’m a stay-at-home mom and artist. Petaluma is a really charming town, and part of what helps it stay charming is the vision put forth by the city. The current guiding principles for Petaluma were put into place in May of 2008. I’m sure you’re all familiar with them. Three of the guiding principles in particular apply to this issue of Safeway wanting to put in a gas station. I’d like to read you some excerpts.

Number one. Maintain a close-knit, neighborly, and family-friendly city. The General Plan envisions Petaluma as a city of strong neighborhoods. A guiding premise of the General Plan is that activities and facilities used on a frequent basis, such as stores and parks, should be easily accessible to residents. Planned uses are designated to ensure balanced neighborhood development with a mix of uses and provision of new parks and commercial centers in neighborhoods that presently lack them. Well our neighborhood isn’t currently lacking a gas station. We’ve got one.

[There are actually two gas stations within a block of the Safeway site.]

The neighbors surrounding this proposed gas station don’t feel it’s a good fit. We feel the gas station will be too close to schools, ball fields and our homes. The development would throw our neighborhood out of balance and I have been pounding the pavement and talking with my neighbors. It’s really helped the neighborhood community and I get to know everybody as we go and talk about this and nobody I’ve talked to has wanted it.

Guiding principle number eleven states:

‘Foster a sustainable community in which today’s needs do not compromise the ability of the community to meet its future needs. Enhance the built environment, encourage innovation in planning and design, and minimize environmental impacts through implementation of green development standards.’

In effect, the principles of sustainability are woven into each element of the General Plan, whether water resources, transportation, natural resource conservation, or housing.

Gas stations are not the future! Gas stations no longer in business are harder to replace with another business. It’s expensive to clean up and remove underground gas tanks. There isn’t a growing demand for gasoline as more and more cars become electric. Why burden the future neighborhood with a dead gas station?

Finally, the fifteenth guiding principle aims to “Recognize the role Petaluma holds within the region and beyond.”

This General Plan identifies the city’s willingness and dedication to participate in the collective solutions and adverse changes in the global climate. Policies and programs are identified to protect the community and reduce the community’s impacts on regional and global resources. Gasoline is the antithesis of this principle.

Petaluma is a town of good food, good music, little free libraries, eco-friendly gardens and street fairs downtown. Cheap gas is not how we adhere to our principles. Thank you.

Saslow is organizing opposition to the gas station and may be reached online here.

Alexander Saslow, husband of Adriann, provided the commission with a price comparison he’d compiled himself between gas stations in Petaluma and Novato. The results, said Saslow, showed a comparable median price, suggesting gas prices in Petaluma are at market value.

Elizabeth Ambrosi, a neighbor of the proposed project, noted that “just because the zoning designation permits it, that does not mean a gas station should be built there.”

“It’s too close to the schools.”

Planning commissioner Heidi Bauer cited numerous specific instances in which the Safeway gas station project violated the PGP, making it clear the project came nowhere near earning her approval.

While I appreciate some of the benefits of the proposed project, like the transit bus station and the repairs of the sidewalks and cheaper gas for our community members, I think that a large portion of the project doesn’t fit into our General Plan.

I know we have a moratorium on projects that cause cars to idle for long periods of time, although I know service stations are exempt from that, I think this still fits the need for that. This is in essence causing the equivalent of four drive-throughs existing at the same time, all the time during the entire operation, so I feel like that intent is the same. I know that service stations are exempt, so I understand that, but I think that the policy 4-p-7 in the General Plan – to reduce motor vehicle-related air pollution. It does not fit into that portion of the plan. I’ve looked through the plan. I’ve also seen 4-p-17:

To avoid potential health effects and citizen complaints that may be caused by sources of odors, dust from agricultural uses, or toxic air contaminants, the following measures may be considered:

Locate new stationary sources of air pollutants, such as industrial facilities, at sufficient distances away from residential areas and facilities that serve sensitive receptors to avoid significant impacts caused by odors, dust and toxic air contaminants.

I think that this project also doesn’t meet that policy.

There’s also the goal of 4-g-4: reduce reliance on non-renewable energy sources in existing and new development.

Then there’s the last one that I found, 7-p-15: improve and expand safe pedestrian and bicycle transit access to all school sites and campuses. For me that’s the most important one.

You know for me I think that’s the most important one. I’ve been up to the Safeway gas station in Santa Rosa quite a bit. I’ve spent a lot of time up there. There’s cars spilling out into the road. I do all that I can to avoid that area. It’s very dangerous. I can’t imagine having a school sited so close. I think that the school up there hasn’t been in use for a while, so I’m not sure we can say that that is apples to apples. So it’s a very busy school. There’s soccer, there’s little league, the Safeway store brings a lot of attention. There’s going to be a big new gym there. I think it’s going to be a very big area. I think maybe the traffic was underreported, so I don’t think at this time I’m going to be supporting the project.

Commissioner Bill Wolpert also spoke of the PGP at length as he described the reasons for his opposition to the project:

Like commissioner Bauer, I often find myself looking to our General Plan to maintain a vision of where this community wants to go. Our General Plan goal 4-g-3 talks about air quality, and policy 7 talks specifically about reducing motor vehicle-related air pollution. Goal 4.5 talks about greenhouse emissions, and to quote “Petaluma seeks to evaluate and lessen the impacts of greenhouse gases by reducing emissions.”

Since 2005 Petaluma has been working to reduce greenhouse gases 25% below 1990 levels. The state of California through AB 32  and AB 398 has made the state a leader in greenhouse gas reductions. This is the direction we want to head in.

This project is a benefit for Safeway customers, not the public. This Safeway gas station will not make local gas stations more competitive, any more likely than big box stores will make local retailers more competitive. It is more likely to reduce competition by driving them out of business.

What I find remarkable are the findings that impacts to air quality and traffic are insignificant. They did not say ‘no risk’. Traffic at McDowell and Washington can already reach levels at ‘E’, which is known to be unacceptable. It’s as if, it’s so bad already that a little more traffic won’t matter.

Exposure to school children has no significant impacts. Air quality is deemed insignificant if cancer risk is less than ten per million. This project kind of needs to be called what it is. This is a discount gas station with a strategy, it’s a Safeway gas station with a marketing strategy to sell more groceries. What I don’t understand is why any level of risk is okay for a marketing strategy. Adding more gas stations to our community is not on any priority list. Providing a discount gas station as an incentive to buy groceries is antithetical to the direction our community and our state needs to go, and desires to go. We are not reviewing a project with great community benefits like housing, or a business that provides a lot of well-paying jobs. This is a gas station. Thank you.

Next up, commissioner Scott Alonso began his commentary with a vehement denunciation of Safeway for its belated provision to the commission of a poll which purported to show considerable support for the gas station amongst the Petaluma population.  

I wanted to start first, briefly, on this public opinion poll that commissioner Bauer mentioned and I just want to emphasize how bogus this poll is. We have no idea of all the questions. We have no idea what all the responses were. We don’t have the demographic breakdown. We don’t have the age breakdown. We don’t have the neighborhood breakdown. We don’t know how many attempts they had. So I think to try to jam this down our throats at the eleventh hour…for one thing the fact that you waited to contract so long with FM3 and get the poll done isn’t a good excuse to not provide us all the data.

I’ve worked with FM3. They’re a great polling firm, and they do great work. They have the data. They wouldn’t write the memo if they didn’t have the full survey crosstabs ready. So the idea that you won’t provide it is very concerning. They have it! They can’t write the memo without the full data, and I know there are multiple colleagues here on the dais who are familiar with public opinion polls and the fact that they wrote a memo without revealing everything behind the data is incredibly misleading to the audience here, those at home and us up here.

So please in the future don’t push this on us. It’s not accurate. We don’t know what’s behind all these questions. They’ve come up with all these people that support the project. Okay. Tell me where that is in the evidence behind this poll. It’s not there. They haven’t presented it.  And again these polls are very expensive. They cost anywhere between $20-35,000 to do a citywide poll. So the idea that they’re going to spend all this money and not present us all the information is not okay.

I think it really underscores the challenges that Madame Chair, you brought up at the beginning with the applicant’s behavior towards this commission,  the staff and the public, where they aren’t being transparent about what’s going on, and to me that is incredibly concerning. The idea that they don’t consult with the school and the staff about when these public meetings are going to occur – they quote “just advise them” when the meetings were – that doesn’t work. I work in community engagement and public information. The idea that you would communicate with quote unquote “your partners” like that is absurd. No public affairs professional would ever advise an applicant to do that strategy. It just, it’s counter-intuitive. You’re gonna make people upset. You’re not engaging them. You’re not listening to them.

I think that’s the other key thing, Madame Chair. We’re not hearing how they’re listening to the public. We hear that they’re taking their comments, but what are they doing with that information? We’re not talking about any of that. We’re not talking about how they’re using feedback, improving things, understanding what they’re hearing. They don’t have to agree with everything. That’s okay. We’re not saying they have to agree with everything the public has, but you have to demonstrate some sort of basic understanding and compassion with the public and what they’re hearing on what those concerns are and how they’re going to address them.

In fact we’re told that quote “they don’t grasp” certain parts of the project. That was a direct quote from the applicant. I was stunned to hear that. I’ve never heard an applicant talk about the public that way – that they don’t quote “grasp” something. I think that’s insulting, frankly. I can’t support the project as presented. Like my colleagues brought up, the General Plan, that’s what we have to look at. The quality of life being impacted here is so adverse and negative to the community, so close to the school, and the fact that they still won’t do authentic community engagement is baffling. Even though we made it really clear to them at the May 8 meeting that’s what they had to do, they had all this time to do it, yet they wait until school was out, they literally waited until school was not in session to have these meetings. They didn’t engage with the Spanish-language population and the  Spanish-language parents at the school directly, and they didn’t engage with the parents directly. So again I think that they’ve had every opportunity to present us with a solid project that’s backed by the facts and backed by transparency, and unfortunately it doesn’t meet any of those goals, so unfortunately I can’t support any of the motions tonight.

Alonso’s was a lengthy, intriguing critique which could only be adequately understood after learning that three weeks after this meeting he filed paperwork to run for city council.

Safeway staff’s repeated threats of litigation and tone-deaf communications strategy with the community were universally panned by the members of the commission, with commissioner Diana Gomez noting how the corporation had been “pilloried” at this meeting.

Faced with the certainty of four yes votes to approve the gas station, It appears Safeway provided the perfect opportunity for Alonso to highlight media relations expertise acquired during the 32 year old’s post-collegiate career thus far. He spent over four minutes justifiably excoriating the corporation’s representatives for an outreach effort that was poorly planned and ill-timed at best. He took exception to the company’s occasionally tone-deaf and insulting comments. In conclusion he also added a very brief nod to the Petaluma General Plan and his colleagues who cited it, but this had the look and feel of an afterthought, a brief acknowledgement of momentary allies.

Alonso told former city councilmember Janice Cader-Thompson that he could go either way on the Safeway gas station project, so his belated decision to oppose the project while teaching the Safeway corporation a lesson in community media relations appears to have been an effort to establish some progressive and environmentalist credibility in light of his council candidacy.

However, given the large number of qualified, talented candidates vying for three open council seats this year, a highly polished relative newcomer to Petaluma from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, less than a decade out of college, might find it hard to explain how one year on the Petaluma Planning Commission merits a promotion. But we do thank him for appropriately taking Safeway to task.

As for the gas station, we’ll see how it goes. The city can ill afford an expensive lawsuit with a deep-pocketed adversary. Yet this station is without question an undesirable offense to the carefully constructed principles of the Petaluma General Plan.

A 2011 review of 94 studies that examined residential proximity to environmental hazards that was published in the American Journal of Health, Residential Proximity to Environmental Hazards and Adverse Health Outcomes, concluded:

Although their results are mixed, many studies found significant relationships between residential proximity to environmental hazards and adverse health outcomes, such as adverse pregnancy outcomes (including increased risks for central nervous system defects, congenital heart defects, oral clefts, renal dysplasia, limb malformations, chromosomal anomalies, preterm births, low birth weight, small-for-gestational-age births, fetal deaths, and infant deaths), childhood cancers (including leukemia, brain cancer, germ-cell tumors, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Burkitt lymphoma), asthma hospitalizations and chronic respiratory symptoms, stroke mortality, PCB toxicity, end-stage renal disease, and diabetes.

The evidence at this time is sufficient to justify the application of the precautionary principle to protect people from the deleterious effects of living near environmental hazards. Even in the absence of complete scientific proof, enough evidence of potential harm being done exists to justify taking steps to rectify the problem and to protect the public from potentially harmful exposures when all available evidence points to plausible risk. Although economic and political forces will likely require stringent proof that specific recommendations (e.g., establishment of protective buffer zones around noxious land uses) will be effective, some practical applications should be obvious. For example, prohibiting the siting of schools near highways and being cognizant of pesticide drift when planning residential locations or other sensitive land uses, fall into the category of commonsense guidelines and constitute approaches that would be difficult to argue against. [Emphasis added – RR]

The risk of harm is too great to locate a gas station in the location Safeway has chosen. View study at its source.

Below are the Guiding Principles of the Petaluma General Plan 2025. Nowhere does it suggest that providing discounted gasoline exclusively to the customers of Safeway for the purposes of corporate profit might be a good idea. Far from it.

The question for this year’s citywide council and mayoral candidates is, if the Petaluma General Plan can be so readily ignored in such a highly visible locale by so appalling project that belongs to a previous century, what purpose does the PGP serve, and how might we give it some very specific teeth that would prevent such an outrage from getting this far in the future?

Read the Petaluma General Plan’s guiding principles below. Contact the members of the Petaluma City Council before their Monday, September 17, 2018 meeting (contact info below) or attend the meeting and comment in person. The agenda is here. Sign the petition to stop the gas station here.

Guiding Principles of the Petaluma General Plan 2025

  1. Maintain a close-knit, neighborly, and family-friendly city.
  2. Preserve and enhance Petaluma’s historic character.
  3. Preserve and enhance Petaluma’s natural environment and distinct setting in the region – a community with a discrete edge surrounded by open space.
  4. Enhance the Petaluma River corridor while providing recreational and entertainment opportunities, including through active implementation of the Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan.
  5. Stimulate and increase public access and use of pathways as alternative transportation routes by providing a safe, efficient and interconnected trail system.
  6. Provide for a range of attractive and viable transportation alternatives, such as bicycle, pedestrian, rail, and transit.
  7. Enhance downtown by preserving its historic character, increasing accessibility and residential opportunities, and ensuring a broad range of businesses and activities.
  8. Foster and promote economic diversity and opportunities.
  9. Expand retail opportunities to meet residents’ needs and promote the city’s fiscal health, while ensuring that new development is in keeping with Petaluma’s character.
  10. Continue efforts to achieve a jobs/housing balance, emphasizing opportunities for residents to work locally.
  11. Foster a sustainable community in which today’s needs do not compromise the ability of the community to meet its future needs. Enhance the built environment, encourage innovation in planning and design, and minimize environmental impacts through implementation of green development standards.
  12. Ensure infrastructure is strengthened and maintained.
  13. Integrate and connect the east and west sides of town.
  14. Encourage cultural, ethnic, and social diversity.
  15. Recognize the role Petaluma holds within the region and beyond.

 

Petaluma City Council contact email addresses.

To share a message with the entire council and place it on the public record, you may send messages to Petaluma City Clerk Claire Cooper at [email protected]

Chris Albertson: [email protected]

Teresa Barrett: [email protected]

David Glass, Mayor: [email protected]

Mike Healy: [email protected]

Gabe Kearney, Vice Mayor: [email protected]

Dave King: [email protected]

Kathy Miller: [email protected]

 

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