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Planning Commission says no to Walgreens

Published: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 2:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 2:32 p.m.

The Petaluma Health Care District’s plans to build a Walgreens in town received a blow Tuesday after the Planning Commission denied their request to rezone a parcel of land at Lynch Creek Way.

Currently, the land’s suggested use is for business park space, forcing the district to seek a Petaluma General Plan amendment rezoning the land to mixed-use retail and commercial in order for a Walgreens to be allowed there. But after a failed second attempt Tuesday to convince planning commissioners that the project’s benefits to the community merit the change, the property remained zoned as a business park site.

“The General Plan should not be amended lightly,” said newly appointed commissioner J.T. Wick. “It should only be done if there is an exceptional, important and substantial reason. I just don’t see that here.”

The Health Care District can appeal the Planning Commission’s decision to the City Council, which will have final say on the site’s designation later this year. When the project comes to the council for review, councilmembers will also have to decide whether to allow a second General Plan amendment letting Walgreens install a drive-thru pharmacy pickup window — something the current General Plan forbids. The Planning Commission did not tackle the drive-thru issue at Tuesday’s meeting, since it denied the district’s original request to rezone the land.

The Petaluma Health Care District has owned the Lynch Creek Way property since 1981. It was originally meant for additional physician office space and overflow parking for the hospital. But over the years, the hospital found it did not require the extra parking space and local physicians started their own offices, leaving the district with the undeveloped parcel of land.

The Walgreens project — proposed jointly by the Health Care District and a Walnut Creek developer on district-owned property along North McDowell Boulevard near the future Deer Creek Village shopping center — features a 14,500-square foot Walgreens complete with a 24-hour pharmacy pick-up window and an adjoining 7,500-square feet of commercial space.

The district had proposed the project to assist Petaluma Valley Hospital — which does not have an in-house pharmacy for its patients — and as a way to raise money for the district’s community health projects. Because the district owns the land, Walgreens would pay them rent, generating an estimated $250,000 per year for the district. Health Care District CEO Ramona Faith said the project would also benefit the community by generating tax revenue.

“We’ve conducted several studies to determine the best use of that lot and we’ve always found (the best use) to be a drugstore or retail use,” said Faith. “It will add jobs and revenue that will be reinvested into the community.”

Several community members spoke at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting about Petaluma’s need for a drive-thru pharmacy. Erin Hawkins, a Petaluma resident and community outreach manager at the Health Care District, said that her 3-year-old son has had repeated bouts of a highly contagious respiratory viral infection, known as croup.

“Every time I have to bring my son into the pharmacy, I feel guilty that I may be spreading it to other people,” Hawkins said. “I also feel guilty that I might be exposing him to someone else’s sickness. It’s a nightmare.”

But other residents and business owners, while sympathetic to people like Hawkins, said that changing the site’s zoning to allow retail would reduce the opportunity for prime medical office space in Petaluma.

“This lot is perfect for healthcare providers,” said Bob Koenitzer, a local resident with a dental practice who opposes to the project. “If this lot is made into medical office space, it will be rented. We’re already adding tons of retail space in the Target shopping center and the Deer Creek Village (Shopping Center) — right next door. And there’s four pharmacies within a mile of this site.”

Ultimately, the five members of the commission that were present denied the district’s request on a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Jennifer Pierre, J.T. Wick and Richard Marzo voting against rezoning the site. Council liaison Kathy Miller and Commissioner Jocelyn Yeh Lin voted in favor of rezoning.

It was the first meeting of the newly composed Planning Commission, which consists of new members Wick, Marzo and Yeh Lin. Commissioner Bill Wolpert was absent and did not vote, but sent a letter to the commission saying he did not support amending the general plan. Commissioner Ray Johnson resigned from the planning commission last week, due to his ongoing battle with cancer, and also was not present for the vote.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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