Thursday, July 16, 2009

QuikTrip Coming to Oconee County Site Despite Denial Of Variance Request

Trees Not a Problem After All

QuikTrip is going ahead with plans to build a gas station and convenience store at the corner of Daniells Bridge Road and the Oconee Connector even though Oconee County refused to grant a variance to its tree ordinance that the representative of QuikTrip said in June was essential for the project.

The project is scheduled to be reviewed tomorrow morning by the county’s Development Review Committee. Representatives of QuikTrip have been informed of the review and invited to attend the meeting, which was scheduled on July 2.

County Planner Brad Callender told me today that QuikTrip has not asked that the meeting be cancelled.

Members of the Board of Commissioners struggled at their June 2 meeting to support the planning department staff, which was arguing that the tree ordinance should be upheld, and at the same time show QuikTrip how much it wanted to have the gas station at the busy county intersection.

Ultimately the board voted 2-1 to support the staff and uphold the tree ordinance. But it voted 2-1 to toss out staff concerns about the safety of one of the two entrances because of proposed parking in what should be a buffer area.

QuikTrip was blowing smoke with its threat not to build the gas station and convenience store unless the county caved in to its request.

A check of the records at the courthouse shows that QuikTrip purchased the property from JJMB, LLC, and A. Paul Keller Jr. on June 10, or eight days after the variance hearing, with the stipulated purpose of building the gas station and convenience store.

The sale price was $1.2 million, according to the notice of the sale appearing in the June 25, 2009, editions of The Oconee Enterprise and The Oconee Leader.

At the meeting on June 2, QuikTrip was asking for three variance requests so it did not have to meet requirements of the county’s Unified Development Code.

It wanted to reduce the number of shade trees required to visually screen the parking lot from the roadway, to eliminate a buffer screening requirement behind the convenience store, and to allow parking inside the required 30-foot parking setback from the roadway right of way.

QuikTrip claimed the first variance was necessary because the trees would keep motorists from seeing the signs and visiting the site. QuikTrip wanted to reduce the number of shade trees in the area separating the site from the Oconee Connector and from Daniells Bridge Road from 14 to seven.

Oconee County Planner Callender, in his overview of the first request, showed the board five different QuikTrip sites already developed here in Georgia that meet the tree ordinance requirements in Oconee County.

Nathan Richardson, representing QuikTrip, was undeterred.

"The visual corridor of our sites are critical because, in a convenience store environment, the typical time for someone to make a decision on whether or not to stop is typically 12 seconds," Richardson said. "If they don’t see the sign and have three or four seconds to make a decision, they are not going to stop there."

"We are going to bring flexibility with this and make some changes," Richardson continued. "However the area that is outlined, those (seven) frontage trees, are the most that I can get approved from my corporate office. I will tell you that I did propose to them a site plan that was consistent with the county ordinance and they quickly rejected that during the approval process for the project."

"I appreciate QuikTrip willing to be flexible with us," Commissioner Chuck Horton said in response.

At this point, however, Callender, Planning Director BR White, and Planner Krista Gridley dug in their heels.

"It is very common for commercial sites to ask us to reduce the number of trees because it will block visibility," Gridley said. "We have always in the past said this is our code and they have all planted them."

Commissioner John Daniell asked if it wasn’t simply a matter of moving the trees elsewhere on the site to get the required number of trees planted.

"No, not exactly," Gridley said. "Part of this is placement," she continued, but it "also is a site design issue."

According to Gridley, the county requires the shade trees be planted every 25 foot in the frontage area "because part of what we do is screen property. This is a parking screening requirement. We are trying to screen the parking from the road. We also are trying to provide shade for all of this paved area."

Gridley said that the total tree requirement is based on "not only the number of parking spaces they have but also is based on the amount of impervious surface they have. And it is based on the amount of street frontage they have. They just cover the site in impervious surface. It requires a lot of trees."

Gridley said the county’s code does not allow the developer to move the trees around on the site.

Commissioner Jim Luke said he was not going to second guess the staff on this issue, but "I think our UDC may need to be fine tuned in this area. I think there may be some problems we are not able to address, some speciality issues on sites."

Horton and Luke voted to turn down the variance. Daniell voted against the denial. Commissioner Margaret Hale missed the meeting.

Next Richardson said he didn’t want to plant evergreens to screen the property from the adjacent Oconee County Fire Station because he is concerned about what people would do in the trees.

"The sole issue for this variance request is strictly safety," he said. "It gives room for people to go and hang out behind the trees."

Richardson said he was particularly concerned that people would "hang out and sit back there and drink beer or just hang out with their buddies and don’t want to be seen by anybody and do things that they don’t want anybody to see."

QuikTrip, in its application, did not indicate it intends to sell beer at the convenience store, but the two other gas stations and convenience stores in the vicinity–the Exxon station at Mars Hill Road and Hodges Mill Road and the Shell station on Epps Bridge Parkway across from Lowe’s–both sell beer and wine.

The QuikTrip will be about .4 of a mile from the Exxon Station and 1.5 miles from the Shell station. It also will be about .3 of a mile from Mars Hill Baptist Church, or more than twice the 600-foot setback distance from a church required in Oconee County’s beer and wine ordinance.

That section of Daniells Bridge Road has been designated by the BOC as appropriate for beer and wine sales.

County planners told Richardson he did not need to plant the trees to meet the buffer requirement. After a five minute delay for Richardson to discussion his options–a delay that actually stretched to 20 minutes–Richardson withdrew the variance request and said he would put up a six-foot fence instead.

Part of the request for the parking variance by QuikTrip also posed a "safety issue," according to both the planning staff and Emil Beshara, director of Public Works. Both were concerned about cars backing out of two of the parking spots and colliding with cars using the Oconee Connector entrance and exit to the site.

The other part of the variance request–near the Daniells Bridge Road entrance and exit–did not present a problem, according to the planners, because of excess right of way in that area due to earlier construction of the roadway.

Beshara offered a compromise for the area in question by proposing that the two parking spots be designated for employees of QuikTrip only, though he did not explain why employees would be better drivers than others.

Commissioner Daniell asked why the employee parking was not moved elsewhere on the site, but Richardson said the spots were selected because they can be monitored from inside the store. "We don’t require our employees to park in areas that cannot be seen," he said, because of concern for the safety of the employees.

Richardson said four to six employees are usually at a QuikTrip site at any one time.

Richardson said he was not happy with the requirement that the parking in the buffer area be designated as for employees because of what it communicated to customers, but, by a vote of 2-1, the variance, with this condition, was approved. Horton was the dissenter.

The commission devoted one hour and 45 minutes, including the recess, to the discussion of these three variance requests. I’ve edited the county version of the video to include just this discussion (minus the recess) and placed it on my vimeo site. It is worth viewing.

Local businessman and developer Mike Power expressed his frustration with the board, but not because it invested so much time on the issue but because of its unwillingness to give QuikTrip what it wanted.

"I’m thinking about what I’m listening to and realizing about how much we need this kind of economic development in our county," Power said after Richardson made his case for his second variance request.

"I’m concerned that we’re not showing some flexibility for this type of company. Very concerned. We need the tax base. This is the highest and best use that I can think of since I’ve been sitting here and previously known of this rezone. If we are talking about an ordinance that doesn’t have any more flexibility than that, we’ve got a problem."

QuikTrip, in the end, was less concerned than Power about the flexibility.

Beshara told me last week he expects to see construction work begin on the site in a few weeks.


Note: I made an error in my earlier story about the QuikTrip hearing. I said Commissioner Horton had voted with Daniell and Luke on the parking variance request, and he did not. I’ve corrected the error, which resulted from my misreading of the minutes, which did not print out fully on my printer. I was not in attendance. I’ve corrected the error and apologize to Commissioner Horton.]

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