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SVCAC deals blow to Amazon delivery hub

Momentum for a large Amazon delivery center proposed at the Victory Station warehouse at Eighth Street East and Fremont Drive was derailed late last month by the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission, which at a meeting late last month meeting shot down a proposal to add 250 parking spaces to the project.

The nine commission members were unanimous in recommending against the proposal to nearly double Amazon’s potential parking spaces, while paving over a 3.5-acre site prone to annual winter flooding issues.

Amazon Corp. had already received the OK last spring to operate a delivery center out of the 250,000-square-feet Eighth Street East warehouse. Now property owner Jose McNeill is seeking permitting to add 250 more parking spaces in an adjacent 3.5-acre lot to service as many as 300 vehicles coming and going on delivery runs each day.

Citizens Advisory Commissioner Tom Martin moved to recommended at the July 22 meeting that Permit Sonoma, the county’s permitting office, review the entire project and all neighboring properties potentially to be drawn into it — considering it as a single conjoined proposal and not as separate “piecemealed” components.

On July 29, Permit Sonoma’s supervising planner Blake Hillegas sent developer McNeill a letter that said in part, “the County is required to evaluate the whole of the project under CEQA guidelines... A single application for the whole of the project, including Amazon as the tenant is required.”

Hillegas said the Permit Sonoma decision “was independent of the recommendation of the SVCAC.”

Nonetheless, the vote was seen as a victory for the “local watchdogs” who requested the public review, Schellville resident Norman Gilroy, of Mobilize Sonoma, and Kathy Pons, of the Valley of the Moon Alliance.

At one time the Amazon project seemed all but inevitable.

In 2017, the site had received a permit for use of its warehouse for a winery storage, distribution and delivery tenant. And earlier this year when the site was proposed for an Amazon delivery hub, Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick initially agreed that the new Amazon proposal was consistent with the use originally permitted in 2017.

Gilroy and Pons argued that the project was too large and too different from the 2017 permit -- and a public hearing was necessary before moving forward.

“Amazon seems to be proposing a very traffic-intensive, regional-scale, retail-delivery and distribution center that would operate 24 hours a day, year-round,” said Kathy Pons in a May 29 letter to Permit Sonoma, co-signed by Gilroy. “Taken together with the intensity of the operation and the truck traffic involved, that expansion constitutes a ‘change of use’ under County codes, and it should be reviewed as such.”

In the end, the SVCAC agreed with that assessment of the proposal for 250-vehicle parking lot on a site that until recently was a heavy-equipment and RV storage area owned by Keith McCaffrey.

Jose McNeill III of McNeill Real Estate Services discusses the Cader Corporate Center project in Petaluma and Victory Station project near Sonoma at a conference in Rohnert Park on May 18, 2016.
Jose McNeill III of McNeill Real Estate Services discusses the Cader Corporate Center project in Petaluma and Victory Station project near Sonoma at a conference in Rohnert Park on May 18, 2016.

There are already 338 parking spaces approved for the 16.23-acre “Victory Station” warehouse, but McNeill purchased the McCaffrey property with a plan to almost double the parking capacity of the overall development. The proposed parking lot would be used primarily by delivery vans between their rounds taking customers’ orders the “last mile” to their door.

Part of the Advisory Commission’s review of the parking lot proposal involved consideration of its grading and design issues.

Submitted designs for the parking lot construction by civil engineering firm Adobe Associates showed that the entire lot – and the Victory Station next door – were “subject to inundation,” or, the familiar flooding issues that occur in Schellville during heavy storms.

Tim Schram, of Adobe Associates, said they would pave over the majority of the site, rendering it impermeable, allowing the water to flow off to the drainage ditch across Fremont Drive.

“We don’t want to exacerbate the situation,” said Schram, but aside from swales on the east and west side of the lot, he offered little in actual assurance that paving over the property wouldn’t do exactly that. He suggested that “someone really kind” should dredge the creek that drained the intersection to take care of the problem.

Many brought up the already-problematic traffic on Highway 121— as additional van traffic from twice-daily distribution waves would add to the congestion, as well as impact the roads around Sonoma Valley.

McNeill suggested any additional impact would be minimal, saying, “Amazon is already in Sonoma,” and that there would be little traffic added to what is already there. He said he wasn’t privy to Amazon’s delivery schedules, either.

“They’re the experts in their business. I just build the buildings I hope they occupy,” he said.

A few voices were raised in support of the project, holding that the economic boost that an Amazon facility in the Valley would bring should not be discounted. But none of those voices were on the SVCAC itself, which piled on terms like “disingenuous” as to the project’s grading permit, questioned the math of the traffic study, and pointed out that Amazon had recently announced plans for a similar delivery hub in Napa.

That project, just a few miles away in American Canyon, would be a delivery station at 173-acre Napa Logistics Park and has secured Napa County approval for a 201,950-square-foot distribution warehouse with parking for 1,170 delivery vans and 409 employee vehicles. According to Amazon’s corporate website, the e-commerce giant has 110 fulfillment centers across the U.S., including 19 in California – though that number does not include those sites in proposal or development – like the one in American Canyon, or the one in Schellville.

Following publication of this article, Supervisor Gorin responded to a question about whether it was appropriate for Permit Sonoma to consolidate all related permit requests into a single application. “Absolutely,” she responded by text, “given the potential for traffic generation by the applicant and the need to review how this model differs from the traffic analysis required for the approval of the building.

Requests for a further response from McNeill were not received.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com. This article has been edited online to correct errors introduced in the print edition.

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