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Sonoma’s Planning Commission backed Cafe Scooteria’s application for outdoor seating

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Goliath shook his fist, and David responded with a gesture of his own – backed up by a unanimous vote of the Sonoma Planning Commission.

It was the undercard on the agenda of the April 12 meeting – the main event was the Sonoma Cheese Factory’s effort to remodel its 70-year-old building on Spain Street. But that battle didn’t start until after 8 p.m., and early arrivals were treated to a tense standoff over the future of a homespun, slightly funky café and scooter shop at 455 W. Napa St., next to the Safeway parking lot.

Café Scooteria was making its second appearance on the matter before the Planning Commission, hoping to get approval for an application to modify its existing use permit to add extended hours, outdoor seating for 25, a fire pit and, possibly, an eventual wine and beer license.

The first hearing, on March 8, stymied the cafe’s application with a series of requests from the commission for clarification and the suggestion it drop its request for an alcohol component. But the day of the second hearing, on April 12, the morning e-mail brought a letter from Albertsons Corp., which owns Safeway and a number of other chain stores.

As anyone who has been to Café Scooteria for a drive-through latte, chai or pastry (and anecdotal evidence at the April 12 meeting suggested that included most of the people in the room, including commissioners), the Scooteria and Safeway have a pair of adjoining driveways (or “cutout,” in city-speak) on West Napa.

That apparently gave Natalie Mattei, a senior real estate manager for Albertsons, the opening to send a letter to the city on behalf of Safeway, Inc., with a list of four conditions on the proposal they felt “prepared to support.”

The terms included: no alcohol sales, which was already adopted by the applicants after the March 8 meeting; keeping a proposed coffee cart to 18 feet or less, which is what they were applying for; maintaining their current hours of operation; and endorsing the 25-seat expansion, subject to one condition. And that condition, according to Mattei’s letter, “would require Scooteria to enter into a non-exclusive revocable license agreement with Safeway to rent four parking stalls prior to the issuance of any building permit…”

In other words, if that funky café rented four parking slots in Safeway’s expansive lot, the supermarket would give their qualified blessing to the project.

Couple problems there. First, it’s the City of Sonoma that issues permits, not Albertsons. And second, since those proffered parking spaces are “non-exclusive and revocable,” accepting the terms would put Scooteria at the mercy of Safeway, with no tangible or lasting benefit to Café Scooteria.

“This came as a surprise to everybody,” said Planning Director David Goodison, referring to the list of conditions from Safeway.

The only real leverage Safeway had was if the city decided to make a given number of parking spaces a requirement of the applicant, who could provide only five on the .2-acre property – two of them designated for employees. And, as Goodison explained at the outset, a parking requirement in the use permit was entirely at the discretion of the Planning Commission, because the application was only for outdoor seating.

Another concern was the hours of operation, which Safeway asked to be restricted to the current times, weekdays from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., a bit fewer on weekends. But Nicholas Grimm, one of the owners of Café Scooteria, stuck by his guns on the request to stay open until 10:30 at night.

“When you look at Dutch (Brothers) coffee, they’re open until 10, Peet’s is open to 8, Starbucks, I believe, is 9 or 10… there seems to be a need for coffee late at night,” said Grimm. “We would just like the flexibility to stay open as long as there’s a need for it.”

Then he addressed the parking issue. “As far as Safeway, we’d like to work something out… we’re a local business, trying to make it here. But if the condition of use is attached to a revocable agreement with Safeway, there could definitely be some issues in the future.”

Commissioner Carol Jansen asked if Safeway was “overparked,” meaning if it had more than enough spaces for the scale of its business, and Goodison confirmed it. She also wondered if off-peak hours made available even more extra parking spaces – implying that perhaps the supermarket shouldn’t be so concerned about a couple extra spaces, especially in the evening hours.

David Niles, who described himself as a “minor investor” in the café, took the podium. “As far as this matter with Safeway in this letter we received literally today,” he emphasized, “we would very much love to work with them on leasing as many parking slots as we can. But this letter has very severe restrictions on it. They become our de facto landlord, if they at any time want to revoke our parking spaces, our use permit becomes in violation.”

“I certainly don’t want to give Safeway any negotiating power over Scooteria,” said Commissioner Kelso Barnett, and the commissioners began to line up in praise of Scooteria’s coffee, in skepticism of Safeway’s terms.

It was Jansen who raised the David and Goliath comparison, and it was one that clicked with other commissioners and the audience. When the vote finally came, it was unanimous, 7 – 0, in favor of granting the permit to Café Scooteria.

The crowd broke into spontaneous and extended applause as the three co-owners of the Scooteria almost danced out of the City Council Chambers.

Chairman Bob Felder banged his gavel and asked for quiet, and the commission turned its attention to the main event – the Sonoma Cheese Factory.

Safeway did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

You can reach Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.