Once in a while, it’s possible to see past the plain details of civic affairs, affording perception of the basic dynamics of civic dysfunction.

Such a scene was on vivid display at Woodland Planning Commission during its specially convened meeting on April 25 for a hearing on Paul Petrovich’s latest escapade, his Starbucks project beside the Burger King near Ashley and Main Streets.

___  Fast-Food Goliaths Collide On Main Street  ___

Starbucks and Burger King are genuine commercial goliaths, the third and fourth largest fast-food restaurants in the nation (measured by sales, both around $9 billion for 2010).  And they are squaring-off for a big legal duel on Woodland’s West Main Street, with Petrovich at the center of it.

The Rite Aid on Ashley and Main was developed by Petrovich, after he sold the eastern half acre of his overall parcel to Burger King in 2009.

Then recently, Starbucks (apparently) has decided to abandon its present location within Raley’s Market at Main and Road 98, allegedly because there is no drive-through capability at that site.

So, Petrovich is now trying to squeeze a (1700 sq. ft. – 36 seat) Starbucks plus another yet to be determined (1000 sq. ft.) business / shop onto only a half acre site, surrounded by existing drive-throughs at both Rite Aid and Burger King.

This project is not actually capable of meeting its parking requirements, which have been twice adjusted downward (25 to 14, then to 10 with mitigation measures).  Yet, if Petrovich simply excised the 1000 sq. ft. shop section, it would be capable of meeting these city requirements.

Testimony from traffic experts describes this three drive-through situation as “unusual,” potentially troublesome, with vehicular blockages occurring a third of the time during peak (morning and afternoon) operating hours.

“Unusual” enough, for Burger King to retain Stoel Rives, LLP, a large multi-state law firm, for the purpose of stopping this project because of its perceived adverse environmental impacts and violations of law being seen as a threat to this Burger King’s commercial viability.

[ Editor’s note:  for background events, see Parts One (Feb. 21) and Two (April 20) of this series of articles, closely located below on this scroll. ]

___  Planning Commission Fails To Comprehend Situation  ___

Apparently being lobbied independently by Petrovich, not a single planning commissioner questioned the political posture of the city staff report supporting conditional project approval, which has fallen into serious question as essentially being  — ‘cooked’ — under orders from the city manager, Paul Navazio, and ultimately from the mayor, Skip Davies.

The Starbucks project file contains material obviously demonstrating a city planning staff consensus that a different form of environmental review is legally required, than a virtual “exemption” supported by the eventual staff report.

This particular situation within the project file was clearly described and revealed on February 21 by Yolo Sun in Part One of this series of articles.  Planning commissioners were personally directed to this article during their February 21 regular meeting.

Legal counsel for Burger King contends that these city shenanigans amount to: “developer favoritism and hints of back room cronyism which have tainted this application to date.”

Indeed, the city manager made an unlawful gift of public funds toward appeasing this peculiar demand of Petrovich.  But once challenged by legal counsel for Burger King and brought into public light, Petrovich suddenly desired to reimburse the city for this unlawful gift, paying back the $5640 for his project’s traffic study.

Thus, the city manager is now off the immediate hook related to unlawfully gifting public funds; however, his over-ruling of city planning staff regarding this project remains a very pertinent legal and political issue.

At this April 25 hearing, Petrovich claimed he is prepared to — “pay $100,000” — to defend his project in court, but he had so far adamantly refused to pay even the minor cost of his required traffic study.  Typical Petrovich.

Invited by public testimony at this meeting to explain these sordid affairs, Petrovich declined.

Burger King’s attorneys persuasively, compellingly contended on a number of grounds that this project does not qualify for the environmental “exemption” it was potentially being granted by the city — even revealing quite recent and salient remarks by Petrovich’s own agents toward this end.

But, not a glimmer of concern was raised by the planning commissioners, especially once the city attorney said a few words which undermined such a course by appearing to vaguely reinforce this supportive staff report and its questionable legal posture.

Of course, the whole idea here was to avoid publically confronting the relevant details and legal truth of these matters.

If the city attorney had instead admitted there may be legal problems of the kind being presented by Burger King, such a statement would impede the desired (rubber)stamp of approval by city planning commissioners.

As a commissioner said following this meeting: “The city attorney said there wasn’t a problem, and I’m not an attorney.  I depend on staff.”

Well, while that attitude is often a good idea, it clearly has its limits; like in this case, where plainly persuasive and compelling contentions were being presented by opposing legal counsel.

In such a case, addressing the substance of these contentions and expressing a reasonable degree of skepticism about the city’s actual legal position may be very much — in the public interest — common sense scrutiny which is fundamental to having a good (lay-person) planning commission, instead of simply a rubberstamp type of commission.

Expressions of such concern and scrutiny were not, however, within these planning commissioners’ playbook.

Delving under the surface of these matters, fairly easy to do as evidenced by instant series of journalistic articles, seems not within the commission’s complexion.  It seemed quite happy to float upon the surface, disdaining the credible controversies; while, genuine public interest, disregarded by dynamics of dysfunction, simply sank down to wherever the bottom resides.

___  What Planning Commission Did Accomplish  ___

Ironically, while not addressing these central contentions of Burger King’s attorneys, planning commissioners in reality succeeded in better proving such contentions by establishing yet additional features and conditions of project mitigation for environmental impacts which — must not exist — for a relevant “exemption” to be lawful.

Mitigating such environmental effects of this project places it squarely outside legal terms for the relevant “exemption,” with the city pursuing an unlawful approach to environmental review and decision-making.

An obvious motivation for this condition is an attempt by the city to save Petrovich some money he would otherwise have to pay.  Just as with the traffic study, Petrovich does not want to pay for an authentic environmental review and is using city processes as a device to obtain (unlawful) relief.

Commissioners seemed quite oblivious to the transparent fiasco / blunder of their style of engagement with this project, even though the situation was pointed out to them by attorneys for Burger King, hopeful it seems, for some indication of awakening comprehension — but to no avail.

Unanimously (6 to 0, commissioner Lopez absent) approving the carefully (or carelessly, as you will) conditioned (mitigated) project, planning commissioners have set the stage for a certain appeal by Burger King to Woodland City Council, likely to occur in June.

Burger King has expressed “strong” opposition and a clear determination to resist being side-swiped by Starbucks and Petrovich, so litigation will likely follow any city council affirmation of planning commission approval.

If the city council were to overturn this approval of planning commissioners, that would be the end of this project, as it now exists, without occurrence of litigation.

___  A Relevant Tidbit, Much More Later  ___

An argument has been raised that since the Burger King received this same nature of environmental “exemption,” Starbucks’ must somehow deserve similar treatment.  The problem with this particular view is that environmental impacts are legally viewed as cumulative in this sort of context.

These two projects are not similarly situated in this regard.  Present existence of adjacent Burger King and Rite Aid creates a cumulative scenario which directly influences the required legal review of any Starbucks’ proposed to be squeezed between them.

Additional details of this matter, including some very interesting, already received remarks from the city manager, will be presented and examined within Part Four of this series of articles, alongside expected appeal of planning commission approval of Petrovich’s Starbucks project to the city council.