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03.05.08

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Phaedra

Big-box Bingo: Petaluma grapples with deciding the entire impact—both fiscal and communal—of construction.

True Cost

Petaluma considers evaluating economic impact

By Patricia Lynn Henley


E veryone wants to make prudent financial decisions, both individually and on a community-wide level. But what's the best way to go about it? How much do officials need to know to make a decision?

Nowadays developers expect to do an environmental impact report (EIR) for any large-scale construction project. But are physical results like noise or traffic and the ecological balance the only things decision-makers should evaluate to determine if a proposal will help or harm the local community? In Petaluma, activists are proposing requiring a community impact report (CIR) to assess the true fiscal costs and benefits of potential projects.

Environmental impact reports have entered the standard public lexicon. Are CIRs the next step? "Twenty-five or 30 years ago, the environmental impact report was also a new tool, and now it's standard," asserts Marty Bennett, a Santa Rosa Junior College instructor and co-chairman of the Sonoma County Living Wage Coalition, part of the group that's urging Petaluma to adopt the CIR requirement. "From my point of view, 25 years down the road, we will say that a CIR has become standard in the approval process for new developments. That will be a huge step forward."

But Petaluma resident and Sonoma County Planning Commission member Don Bennett (no relation) thinks that's a bad idea. Community impact reports, he says, would be used as "a tool to keep things from happening within the community." He argues that the proposal is anti–chain stores and anti-big-box retailers.

"It comes down to a philosophical thing, whether you think the role of government is to control business and management, and who you're managing it for," he says. "Who's going to decide who you want in? That's the problem. Whose will do you impose?"

Cities such as Los Angeles and San Jose already require CIRs as part of the approval process for major projects. Usually less than 50 pages, a CIR looks at five main impacts: fiscal, employment, affordable housing, neighborhood needs and smart growth. Unlike an EIR, a CIR isn't binding and doesn't require mitigation of any impacts.

"For me, [a CIR] is a win-win for both sides," says Melissa Abercrombie of the Petaluma Neighborhood Association. "You look at the information, you weigh it and you figure out what works."

There's an urban-growth boundary to protect Petaluma against sprawl, Abercrombie points out. "Any project that's built within that should be the best, because it's a limited amount of space."

Petaluma is already looking at plans for new Target and Lowe's stores within city limits. Among other items, a CIR would evaluate the number and types of jobs, including salary levels, that they would bring to the area. It would look at whether they would bring new sales tax revenues to city coffers or just cannibalize the sales taxes already being collected by other, usually smaller stores.

For Abercrombie, a CIR is just a way of looking at the big picture before making a decision. It's similar to what developers do before deciding to build a project, she argues, and isn't at all anti-development. "I would welcome a development that I thought would benefit our community, and I don't think analyzing that makes it not happen."

But Don Bennett sees a CIR requirement as a "fact-finding thing to determine what you don't want in your community." The CIR proposal, he asserts, is being supported by those who don't want more chain stores in Petaluma. But if a lot of folks didn't like big-box retailers, he says, they wouldn't exist.

"If the majority of people didn't want to shop in those places, they couldn't keep their doors open."

In his view, it's more important for people to be able to shop, work and live in Petaluma. A CIR, he argues, is an attempt to have the government decide what can be built on private property based on the social aspects of the project.

But Abercrombie sees things differently.

"A CIR is just a tool so we can have a clear picture for our decision making."

The coalition presented its CIR proposal to the Petaluma City Council in late January. Coalition members are now working with city staff to answer a number of questions raised by the council members, including how much CIRs cost and how they've been implemented in other communities.


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