Proposed rezoning raises questions about where gas stations should be allowed

sbarr@newsobserver.comJune 18, 2013 

— A controversial proposed rezoning has left some planning officials wondering whether they should change the city’s rules about where gas stations can be located.

The proposal, which is expected to land on the planning commission’s agenda again in the next few weeks, would rezone the northeast corner of New Hope and Buffaloe roads from a residential designation to one that allows for neighborhood businesses.

While there’s no definitive plan for what would happen to the land afterward, a gas station is a likely possibility.

Neighbors in the largely residential area have been pushing back against the proposal for months. They’re worried that commercial development, and especially a gas station, would worsen traffic, erode the character of their neighborhood and send property values tumbling.

“It’s just a bad idea,” said Phyllis Mueller, who lives in the neighborhood next to the site.

Many members of the planning commission indicated they also have objections to a potential gas station when they discussed the proposal at a meeting in late May.

But there’s nothing in the city’s rules that says a developer cannot build a gas station on the land in question, a fact that some of the commissioners said puts them in a tight spot.

“I’m torn. I’m trying to follow the rules … yet I’m feeling that the policy is inappropriate for this case and for many others where we find houses next to filling stations,” commission member Steve Schuster said.

Schuster said he feels he has to vote in favor of the rezoning because it meets the city’s rules but urged the planning staff and city council to reconsider the policy. Mitchell Silver, the city’s planning director, said at the meeting that the department could look at the question of where gas stations should be allowed in the future.

For other members of the commission, the case against a potential gas station is too significant to ignore, even if the plan meets city standards.

“From my moral standpoint of what has to be there, I just can’t support it,” said Quince Fleming, who is worried about how a gas station would affect the neighborhood.

Silver said that if the commissioners decide to vote against the rezoning, even though the planning staff has found the plan consistent, they should make a clear statement as to why they are doing so.

What’s next?

The commission voted 6-2 to allow a 45-day deferral on the proposal so that the developer and staff can work out some lingering issues.

When the commission votes on the proposal, it will make a recommendation to the city council about whether to approve it. Three-quarters of the council would have to vote in favor of approval rather than a simple majority because the residents closest to the property submitted a valid statutory protest petition against the rezoning.

During the city council’s June 4 discussion about whether to allow the deferral, Councilman John Odom said he would not support the proposed rezoning if it means a gas station could go in.

“Until they come up with something completely different than that, I’ll be voting no,” said Odom, who represents the area.

The rezoning’s trip through the planning process has been a long one, with multiple delays granted to the developer in order to bring the proposal into compliance. The staff report that originally accompanied the application found the plan inconsistent with the city’s policies. However, last month, the city staff changed their finding to consistent after reviewing what they said is an unclear policy.

Ken Bowers, the city’s deputy planning director, said in an interview last week that while the plan does worsen traffic at the intersection as indicated in an earlier report, it doesn’t do so to an unacceptable extent. In addition, the developers have said they will take steps to mitigate the problems.

The change in the staff finding is a disappointment to neighbors who had hoped to see the application denied by now.

Barr: 919-836-4952

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