WILMINGTON –– A proposed car wash on the corner of Independence Boulevard and Carolina Beach Road ignited a spirited philosophical debate among Wilmington City Council and staff.
Council approved the proposal 4-2 at its Tuesday meeting, with council members Margaret Haynes and Kevin Spears dissenting. Staff recommended denial and a split planning commission denied it 4-3 early last month.
Owners of the 1.6-acre lot, represented by Cindee Wolf of Design Solutions, hit two major snags in their rocky path to approval: First, the property is located directly adjacent to a lot that was rezoned specifically and exclusively for a car wash in February 2018; second, the location on a major intersection subjected the proposal to heightened staff scrutiny.
Bound by and including a stormwater pond included in the original Food Lion shopping center, the corner parcel is now approved for a 4,160-square-foot building, H2 Turbo Express Wash. Zoned for a 10,450-square-foot commercial building in June 2020 that never came to fruition, the site will continue to be zoned community business conditional district but, now, with the new desired use permissible.
Council and staff stumbled into a sharp schism. In one corner, led by council members Charlie Rivenbark and Neil Anderson, private property rights prevailed. In the other, with concepts put forth by staff and supported by Haynes, the city would continue along a regressive path, ignoring years of efforts to shape a new land development code (LDC) on the precipice of approval and its existing comprehensive plan adopted in 2016.
Singling out car washes
Rivenbark said he was “flabbergasted.” Staff’s approval of the proposed adjacent car wash and disapproval of the corner-lot car wash was “wrong on so many levels,” he said.
“What really galls me more than anything is we’re protecting the other guy who hadn’t done anything,” he said. “These people are ready to do business.”
According to senior planner Brian Chambers, the adjacent property owner indicated he still intended to build a car wash but was waiting for construction prices to stabilize (Wolf said the same property owner “alluded” to her he’d be interested in building something other than a car wash). With the current zoning, the adjacent property owner can still build a car wash by-right. Since three years have passed from the initial zoning approval, council can at any time initiate a rezoning of the property. The owner would have to seek approval for any other use of the site.
Rivenbark criticized the zoning process at play, which requires owners to obtain site-specific conditional approvals rather than allowing a multitude of commercial uses by-right. “I’ve worked with the zoning ordinance most of my professional life,” he said. “And I used to pride myself in understanding it but it’s so damn complicated now it takes y’all to figure it out.”
The side-by-side approved car washes will likely not be an issue, Anderson said, as capitalism will take care of the conundrum. “You’d be a fool to open one right beside another one,” he said.
Staff turning down the corner lot’s proposal wasn’t fair, Rivenbark explained.
“That’s what galls me to no end – the way you’re handling it. And don’t stand there and tell me that that other car wash that we approved didn’t have some effect on your thinking process and all the little red dots that tied in with your opinion,” he said, referring to consistency designations on staff’s review forms that indicate whether or not plans gel with the city’s comprehensive plan.
When pressed, senior planner Brian Chambers said “he couldn’t say” the adjacent approved car wash “didn’t influence us at all” but that it was not staff’s main concern in its disapproval.
Later, coming to the rescue of staff, planning director Glenn Harbeck doubled down: “The adjacent car wash had nothing to do with it. We consider that to be a dead issue.”
Looking to the future
Assistant planning director Ron Satterfield explained throughout the years-long planning of the LDC rewrite, council and planning commission have told staff, “do nothing else –– improve our corridors,” he said. “So we have taken that to heart.”
As planned, the open bay of the car wash will face Carolina Beach Road –– a would-be violation of the new LDC. It would also be located within less than a half-mile of another car wash, another new proposed rule that would have shot down the recent proposal.
Both Rivenbark and Anderson detested staff’s perceived vilification of car washes over other businesses. “It just really bothers me that we’re picking on one business and two, we’ve selected a business that we think cannot be aesthetically pleasing,” Anderson said.
Asked which other businesses would be subject to a separation requirement in the new LDC, staff listed adult stores, group homes, short-term lodging establishments, electronic game stores, and cell towers as examples. Staff explained they have heard over and over again how the city is riddled with too many car washes and storage facilities that degrade the character of well-traveled corridors.
Harbeck explained staff would have the same opinion of it a McDonald’s was proposed on the corner. “Are we going to take a different turn in a different direction or are we going to continue, whatever comes our way, we approve of it?” Harbeck said.
As the first LDC rewrite in 40 years, Harbeck explained the city is trying to move past a car-centric development pattern. “The automobile has driven what happens along our corridors,” he said. “Certainly this is a prime example of an automobile-oriented use.”
The new code represents a change in perspective, modeled after cities like Charleston, which exercised “major consideration for major intersections” in attempting to cultivate landmark buildings of substance.
Anderson pointed to the Circle K built across Independence in recent years and the Harris Teeter across Carolina Beach Road, approved years ago but just recently started construction. He insinuated staff was arbitrarily deciding when to begin imposing new, still-unapproved requirements and vision on property owners.
“At some point you make a turn,” Harbeck said.
“This is it?” Anderson asked.
Coming to the defense of staff and the 18 public meetings held so far shaping the proposed LDC, Haynes said she wanted to look to the future, “not to just have a junky whatever comes, we say OK” mentality.
“Are we going to look to the future and meet our responsibility of trying to move forward with the comprehensive plan…,” she said. “[O]r are we going to look at this one, almost sort of spot zoning, and just let this guy build this because that’s the business he’s in?”
Mayor Bill Saffo said he hoped planning staff would continue discussions about how to shape the city’s corridors and place more emphasis on aesthetics rather than the businesses proposed.
“I would love to see magnificent buildings,” Saffo said. “I would like to see the Cameron Art Museum on every corner. But the reality of that happening in a capitalist society where so many of your big-box stores and your big conglomerates now own small businesses America is pretty tough.”
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org