By GUY KOVNER and JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Another ballot-box battle may be on Cotati’s horizon in the wake of the City Council’s unanimous approval of a $3.5 million plan to narrow the city’s main street and install two traffic roundabouts instead of stoplights.
Opponents of the plan had promised, even before the council vote shortly after midnight Wednesday, they would mount a drive for a referendum to bar roundabouts anywhere in the city.
On Thursday they said they would keep their word. “We’re definitely going through with it,” said Patricia Minnis, who owns a downtown jewelry store.
“We’ll get the signatures and put it to vote,” said Minnis, a former councilwoman and one of many merchants in opposition.
Council members said the plan, called Village Mainstreet, would reshape the city for the better.
“I think we have an opportunity here for a legacy project,” Councilman John Dell’Osso said shortly before the vote at 12:15 a.m. that capped a public hearing that lasted nearly five hours.
“The roundabout concept can work,” Mayor Janet Orchard said, acknowledging that it initially had given her “a lot of heartburn.”
Later Thursday, she said she couldn’t comment on the initiative effort. “It’s a bit premature, I don’t have enough information yet,” she said.
The plan approved by the council, conceived after more than a decade of discussion on revitalizing Cotati’s downtown, would reduce Old Redwood Highway to two lanes from four at the city’s chief entrance from the north, between Highway 116 and La Plaza.
An alternative plan, retaining a four-lane roadway, would cost $4.7 million and require two years of construction, twice as long as the two-lane plan.
Two lanes would be safer for motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency responders, and also would encourage people to stop and shop downtown, supporters said,
The roundabouts, one block apart, would maintain a smooth flow of traffic, as opposed to the stop-and-go pattern with traffic lights, officials said, The narrower roadway, they said, also would reduce traffic speed to 25 mph, as opposed to 40 mph under the four-lane plan.
“We can have success … like those other places,” Councilman Mark Landman said, referring to business hubs in Sonoma, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square.
Jeff Meston, a retired Novato fire chief working as a city consultant, said the two-lane plan would result in “speedier response time” by firetrucks. “I feel comfortable the plan makes sense,” he said.
The discussion over the design has been colored for months by the objections of Oliver’s Market officials, who had planned to move the store downtown from East Cotati Avenue, but said they wouldn’t if the two-lane roundabout plan went through.
Tom Scott, the company general manager, at the meeting indicated a willingness to perhaps go forward, especially if traffic capacity at the north end of the project is increased. The council directed city staff to consider how that might be accomplished.
“It’s very important we get some clear vision of where we’re going with this,” he said.
Later Thursday, Scott said “We’d really like to make something work,” but that issues of timing and cost now present “some big challenges.”
Environmentalists, bicycling advocates and some longtime residents heartily endorsed the roundabout plan. Eris Weaver said the two-lane plan was “so much more appealing” on “environment and aesthetic” considerations.
But sharp criticisms also were voiced, including from downtown music store owner Neville Hormuz who questioned why officials advocating the plan would “manipulate and lie to the public.”
As initiative advocates make move forward, supporters of the two-lane plan said they are thinking about how to respond.
“I think something should be done to sort of educate people on the choices,” said Claire Fetrow, owner of the Hub Cyclery and one of the few merchants to have publicly favored the Village Mainstreet plan.
Just before Thursday’s vote, Landman appealed to Scott for his help, saying, “We need Oliver’s to support Cotati now.”
Referring to the potential ballot measure, he said: “I’m asking you to stand with the city and say you don’t support that.”
Scott responded on Thursday afternoon: “I think we stand with Cotati, and I think we stand with Cotati on this by sitting on the sidelines.”