As City Studies Wastewater Issue, Patience Running Out for Some Companies

Say unclear zoning rules, fines for improper discharge levels and high fees for hooking into the city's sewer make business difficult


As City Hall continues to brainstorm about how to increase the wastewater treatment plant’s capacity, patience is running out for some local businesses, including Lagunitas.

The brewery has had a meteoric rise since opening in 1995, with sales nearly doubling last year. The tasting room is regularly packed and production booming, with 235,000 barrels churned out last year and 175 people on the payroll in Petaluma.

But because the Ellis Creek plant can’t handle all of Lagunitas’ nutrient-rich beer discharge, the company must pay $250,000 every month to truck it to East Bay Municipal District. It has also accrued thousands in fees for not adequately pre-treating its wastewater before releasing it into the city’s system.

“The reason we haven’t pulled the trigger yet is because the city keeps on telling us to hold on,” said Tony Magee, founder and chief operating officer. “But we can’t wait two years. That’s $3 million!”

Instead, Magee is contemplating building his own pre-treatment facility on a 3-acre parcel behind the brewery the company purchased last year. If he does so, other companies have indicated that they would consider bringing their waste to the pre-treatment facility.

“It’s definitely a maybe,” said Joseph Tuck, CEO and general coordinator at Alvardo Street Bakery. “We’d look at what the most cost effective way would be,” adding that the bakery’s output is significantly lower than Lagunitas and many other food manufacturers.

Five years ago Alvardo Street Bakery moved from Rohnert Park, but Tuck says the company has been disappointed with the fees the company has been slapped with.

“If we had known this would be an issue, we may have looked at other cities,” he said.

That’s a sentiment echoed by other food manufacturers including Cow Girl Creamery, which has also looked at building its own pre-treatment plant at its First Street location but says the costs of doing so are prohibitive.

In addition to the $250,000 plant, the building owner would have to put in a bigger pipe to handle the waste. Cow Girl would then have to pay a $236,000 sewer capacity fee in order to transfer the waste to the Ellis Creek facility.

“Although we were hopeful that Petaluma would be an easier place to do business than Marin County, this has not proven to be the case,” wrote owner Sue Conley in a letter addressed to the city. “At every step when we deal with the city everyone is friendly and supportive, but the policies, costs and confusion around zoning rules and regulations make Petaluma an incredibly difficult place to do business.”

Petaluma’s Economic Development Director Ingrid Alverde says the city is aware of businesses’ concerns and is working as fast as it can to correct the problem. 

“It’s a complicated issue and it takes time…It would be ideal if businesses’ needs and the city’s needs dovetailed, but that doesn’t always happen,” Alverde said.

Still, Petaluma has “bent over backwards” to meet the needs of Lagunitas in terms of permits and fees, she said.

“At the end of the day, every business is going to make a decision that makes sense for them.”

Despite the steep costs of treating waste and ongoing fines for surpassing the set standards for water quality, Lagunitas isn’t about to pack up and move somewhere else. But, says Magee, it can reduce how much production occurs in Petaluma in lieu of its new production facility in Chicago, opened last year.

“There is no cost to the city to say ‘no’ to me, but there is a cost of saying ‘yes,’ says Magee. “And as the old saying goes, you shouldn’t have a partner who has less to lose than you.” 

What do you think is the best way to increase Ellis Creek's capacity for treating high density waste? Are you concerned that companies like Cow Girl could leave Petaluma?

Travis February 07, 2013 at 11:17 PM
LOL!!!! Wow that is so surprising. Can you believe that it is hard to do business in this town? Give me a break under the current and past council’s that have had a unwritten mission statement to keep any business out of Petaluma. Wait I got that wrong... if it's a head shop or antique store that don’t really pay any taxes to speak off then we are good to go. Why would we want to help any business that has 100's of workers that pay taxes and spend money in our stores. Let me use a quote from our last mayor. “These are not the right type of Jobs!” I still have never figured that one out. I guess that I don't get the mental gymnastics you have to use to make that statement. Worst economy in 70 years you would think that they would try and find ways to get stuff done instead of voting on issues that are feel good statments like last week. Please start working on Petaluma issues like this and not on national feel good issues.
Longest Family in Electrical in Petaluma February 08, 2013 at 02:37 PM
Look's like someone needs to put their thinking cap on? Perhaps these companies should band together and figure out how to generate energy with their waste! Other Businesses are doing it! St Anthony Farms put in a system to generate power from the waste at the Farm, too bad the economy made them have to sell. Petaluma needs all of these businesses, and the people of Petaluma need their jobs! We have a lot of smart people in this town, put your heads together and propose a solution to this problem!
R Edwards February 15, 2013 at 08:17 PM
I probably echo the frustration (and/or confusion) of many as to why something like the massive, "Big Box" shopping center at McDowell and 101 receives the city's blessing, while businesses that we should embrace, like Lagunitas and Cowgirl Creamery, feel, at times, unwelcome and embattled.


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