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City Council sends Walgreens project back to drawing board

Published: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 7:04 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 7:04 a.m.

Walgreens will have to return with some more creative ideas if the drug store giant wants to build a retail store and pharmacy across from Petaluma Valley Hospital.

At the end of a meeting that stretched until almost midnight, City Council members on Monday told Walgreens and Petaluma Health Care District officials that they were open to changing the city's general plan for the proposed development, but that a drive-thru pharmacy idea was “dead on arrival.”

The district and Walgreens are partners in a proposed 2-acre retail development with a 7,500-square-foot office building and a 14,500-square-foot drug store on district-owned land across from the hospital at McDowell Boulevard and Lynch Creek Way.

Walgreens and health care district officials argued their partnership will provide Petalumans – especially those being treated at Petaluma Valley Hospital – with a convenient pharmacy, special consultation services, hospital bedside delivery of prescriptions and medication reconciliation services that no one else in town offers.

But the Planning Commission in July rejected the requested to general plan amendment and zoning changes, saying that the community need wasn't great enough.

Walgreens appealed the decision to the council and also sought approval for a drive-thru pharmacy, which could potentially operate 24 hours a day. Drive-thrus are specifically prohibited by the general plan in an effort to cut down on pollution-causing emissions created by idling vehicles.

Ultimately, the council voted 5-1 with Teresa Barrett opposed, to send the zoning and general plan questions back to the Planning Commission with indications that the council is supportive of the changes without a drive-thru.

Developers will submit a revised proposal that explores other options such as curbside or home prescription delivery or a hybrid of some kind.

The commission will hear that proposal and review the architectural plans before the entire package returns to the council for reconsideration.

Vic DeMello of Browman Development of Walnut Creek said he had hoped to win approval of at least the zoning and general plan changes Monday. Councilmembers Kathy Miller, Chris Albertson and Barrett all opposed a drive-thru, with Albertson suggesting Walgreens' “creative people” get to work on an alternative.

After consulting privately with health care district officials and Walgreens representatives, DeMello said they would “find creative solutions” and return to the city with a revised proposal.

Petaluma Health Care District chief executive Ramona Faith said the partnership with Walgreens could help prevent patient readmissions to the hospital, for which Medicare doesn't reimburse expenses, costing the hospital $130,000 a year.

Supporters argued that a drive-thru was crucial to the plan, especially for the elderly, contagious patients or for those with ill children for whom it may be inconvenient to go into a store to pick up prescriptions.

Barrett, Miller and Councilman Gabe Kearney all wanted quantitative evidence of the need.

But Faith and Walgreens officials couldn't provide actual cost-saving numbers. Nor could they provide the numbers of Petaluma patients who travel to Cotati or Santa Rosa Walgreens to fill prescriptions since there is no local store. They also could not show how many Walgreens pharmacy customers go inside to pick up their medications versus driving through the pick-up window.

A Santa Rosa Walgreens store manager said it was a small percentage of customers.

Bob Allen, who has an oral and maxillofacial surgery office on Lynch Creek Way, argued that what Walgreens and the health care district want is not a public necessity, which should be the bar for amending the city's general plan and zoning guidelines.

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