Sunday, April 21, 2024

More gas stations fly South as city considers change in design standards

Royal Farms, a gas station based in Baltimore, is expanding into Wilmington with multiple stores, including one on Oleander Drive in the former Hops Supply Company location. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — In April, homeowners behind the Azalea Inn and Suites on Market Street were invited to a community meeting for another gas station proposal, this time for Royal Farms — planning to buy out the hotel. 

READ MORE: Wawa’s in, multiple small businesses are out

It’s one of four locations the Baltimore-based convenience store has slated for Wilmington as part of its North Carolina expansion. Royal Farms is bringing another location to the juncture of Highway 132 and Highway 17 in Castle Hayne and was considering Hops Supply Company. The fourth store is yet to be revealed. 

Port City Daily reached out to Royal Farms to inquire where else in the community the store is considering.

“We don’t have a lot of information on these sites at this time,” spokesperson Shelby Kemp said.

Stephanie Schlosser, who lives near the Market Street location, said she thought the convenience store was a “conflict of interest” with the neighborhood behind it.

“It just seems so preposterous in my mind,” Schlosser said. “I think, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s gonna be like 24 hour lights in our backyard and noise. One of the neighbors said, ‘So what what’s gonna happen when, you know, cars, pull up, a booming system with all their doors, open, the vacuum out at three o’clock in the morning?’” 

While disturbing noise and light was the main concern for many according to Schlosser, nearby homeowners were concerned about stormwater drainage and the barn owls that dwell in the trees near their homes. 

After the meeting, Schlosser emailed the city council about her concerns.

“We have collectively worked to increase the safety of our neighborhood with local law enforcement. We have generations of families that live in Chestnut Heights, many of which helped establish this neighborhood. We are concerned about the value of our homes decreasing, the safety of the domestic violence center, crime, wildlife, a significant increase in already hectic traffic and let alone, the noise and light impact.”

Over the last year, five major gas station brands have announced projects in the city. Among the ranks is the famous Pennsylvania-based convenience store Wawa with its cult-like following planned for 17th Street and Wellington Avenue. Two other locations are also being considered.

“You know the joke about the town: There’s nothing but gas stations, car washes and storage units now,” Jay Ruth, owner of Tinyz Tavern, told Port City Daily last month. 

But now the gas station invasion is crossing out of joke territory as some projects displace businesses and worry neighbors. 

Ruth is among five business owners that have to relocate from Samelin Center to make room for Wawa on Wellington Avenue. The company made an offer to property owner Tom Melin to construct the first store in southeastern North Carolina. 

Wawa has been planning an aggressive growth strategy in the coming decade to double its store count to 1,800 by 2030. It will fill in gaps along the East Coast from Virginia to Florida where currently no stores are located. 

Its home-state competitor, Sheetz, is also coming to the area, with stores planned for Independence Boulevard in Wilmington and Country Club Road in Hampstead. 

Another famed chain, 7-Eleven, has eyes for the corner of Birchwood Drive and Market Street; with it comes a car wash. 

Even Harris Teeter is taking part in the gas station blitz; On the Border, closed since 2020, is set to be demolished to make way for the grocery store’s fuel center. 

Schosser told Port City Daily she’s worried about the current restrictions on gas stations. 

“Unfortunately, there is apparently a new mandate that says gas tanks can no longer be in front of the station — they must be behind,” Schlosser said. “So, in my mind, I’m like, ‘Great, so that means our houses blow up first.’”

The homeowner is referencing provisions on fuel pumps as included in the city’s land development code, which underwent an overhaul in 2021. It bars fuel pump islands and canopies from being built forward of the front plane of the convenience stores. 

City staff proposed changing it to be more aesthetically pleasing.

“This is one of those provisions where we wanted to make the building the most prominent feature on the site and the fuel pump the secondary feature,” Senior Planner Brian Chambers told the city’s planning commission at its May 3 meeting. 

City council member Charlie Rivenbark asked the planning department to reevaluate the code. 

“We kind of had a one-size-fits-all language in there and it just wasn’t working on all sites — like Wawa, for example, uses a large lot,” Rivenbark told PCD Friday. 

The chain purchased 2.5 acres at 2402, 2406, and 2420 S. 17th streets, as well as 1608 Wellington Ave. to build near the hospital.

Rivernbark said problems have occurred with developers trying to fit the gas station within the code’s guidelines. This has led to cutting down more trees, and confusion over defining the front plane — the area in the forepart of the building — and the advantage of cumulative frontal planes on corner lots.

At the planning commission meeting, Chambers reported two options to change the code: Eliminate a standard requirement altogether for canopies and pumps and take each submitted plan on a case-by-case basis, or provide an exemption on where the pumps could go for properties that had less than 200 feet of street frontage. 

“But if you had greater than 200, it would allow you to meet a side-by-side approach and increase that visibility,” Chambers explained.

“Brian, what’s the magic sauce about 200 feet?” planning commission member Danny Adams asked.

“There’s no magic sauce,” Chambers replied. “We looked at a few gas stations that have been coming through, and it seemed to be anything over 200 could meet the standard.”

Chamber reminded them the five fuel stations pitched most recently were designed with pump canopies located side-by-side the structure — a result from the code change, he added.

He said the number of feet is open for discussion. 

“I hate to dig back into all this,” planning commission member John Lennon said. “But I don’t know how much of a better aesthetic that is … I’m trying to think of a station that’s broken up the sight line with pumps in front with something else, and I’m struggling to think of one right now.”

The Exxon at Lullwater and Market was suggested, masked by landscaping. 

“I know it’s subjective,” Chambers said. “But as a staff, it’s our challenge and our responsibility to provide options we feel will improve the aesthetics along our road corridors, which is basically the guts of the city. It’s what you see when you drive through the town.”

“I just worry we’re trying to dictate the way some of these businesses — the traditional models — should operate and I hope we’re not hurting ourselves, limiting opportunities,” Lennon added.

He pointed to a provision in a former UMX zoning that limited retail buildings to 25,000 square feet. 

“I remember, specifically, because of that limitation, we struggled to get a grocery store on that particular site and, ironically, now it’s all apartments and single family,” Lennon said. 

Chambers was clear all the stations currently proposed have met the standard. 

“These are all large corporate entities,” Lennon added. 

Many corporate convenience stores have various designs and can choose from a multitude of plans according to a municipality’s code. Lennon said it doesn’t work the same for smaller mom-and-pop stores. 

“Joe citizen, [who] decides to partner up with a lady and build a gas station, they probably don’t have the same kind of resources,” he said.

Requester-of-the-change, Rivenbark, prefers removing the 200-foot language altogether in favor of the case-by-case method. 

“What this will do is just kind of shift the way that the site plan is laid out with the gas tanks either in the front or gas tanks in the back,” Rivenbark said.

Planning staff plan to recommend going case-by-case to the city council at its meeting June 6. Rivenbark said this will be the best way to ensure projects move forward but still in a way that is harmonious with the community. 

“They’re going to come regardless,” Rivenbark said. “I don’t get in the way of people that come in and want to spend money. They see great value in this market.” 

Port City Daily reached out to Royal Farms, Wawa and Harris Teeter to gain perspective on the appeal of the Wilmington market; none of its representatives responded.  

“There’s the old saying, ‘You build it, they will come,’” Rivenbark said. “Wherever you’ve got residential and major thoroughfares — that’s where these people want to be located.”

Rivenbark cited significant growth attracting the major brands.

“They’re coming to Wilmington to shop. They’re coming to Wilmington to go to work. They’re coming to Wilmington to have medical treatment. We’re kind of like the straw that stirs the milkshake,” Rivenbark said. “They don’t make mistakes. They don’t just put one anywhere they want it to be where the people are and where the traffic is.”


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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