Just when things were looking darkest for a venerable Durham filling station last week, a law appeared in time to save the day.
Or, you might think of it as, What the state Department of Transportation taketh away, the state legislature returneth – sort of.
The station in question is the Family Fare convenience store between the Pettigrew Street bridge and the Durham Freeway on Alston Avenue. NCDOT is going to widen Alston Avenue, in the process taking away 0.26 acre of the station’s current 0.98-acre property.
To fit its business on less acreage, M. M. Fowler Inc., which has owned the land and its filling station since 1964, wants to demolish the 14-year-old existing convenience store and build a new one, 900 square feet bigger, but farther back on its lot. According to designer Chad Huffines, the main reason for building bigger is to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements that were not in effect when the existing store was constructed.
Building bigger on a smaller lot, though, means M.M. Fowler needs exemptions – or “variances” – from city development regulations on landscaping and building setbacks. The company asked for them at the Board of Adjustment meeting Tuesday.
“Over almost 60 years businesses on that site have been unqualified successes,” M.M. Fowler CEO Marvin Barnes told the board, although governments have taken land away on three occasions in that time.
“Time changes, laws change,” he said. “Businesses do the best they can with what they’ve got. ... We’re trying to continue the success we’ve already enjoyed, and I’m convinced if there weren’t a need for that store it wouldn’t have been a success over a 60-year period. As important as it is to me, it is also important to that community.”
DeDreanna Freeman, who lives nearby, said she often buys gas at the station, which is open 24 hours a day, and “many a time in the middle of night I’ve had to run out and get some milk. This is a very high-use facility in this neighborhood.
“Whatever variances are necessary to make sure this gas station stays open and provides the same level of service as it does today (are) important,” she said. “The people who are using this station (need) to be thought of as well as the UDO.”
Designer Chad Huffines spent half an hour going over the building plans and constraints the site presented. Still, the Board of Adjustment balked at what M.M. Fowler was asking.
There were questions about how the building would look from the rear, questions whether it really needed to be bigger, questions why the building could not be stretched and squeezed to fit within the rules.
Some members wondered about alternative designs. Jacob Wiggins of the city-county planning department said planners had asked for alternative site designs, but none had been submitted. He also said, though, that alternatives are not required and Huffines said the design before the board was, in his opinion, the best that could be done.
“We’ve worked on this for four years,” Barnes said. “If (planning) staff has a better idea I’d like to hear it.”
Asking for more designs at the property owner’s expense would be an undue burden, Freeman said, especially since the owner had no say in the state’s proposal and city’s agreement to widen Alston Avenue.
But, after an hour, board members’ discussion appeared headed toward continuing the question until a later date or voting against M.M. Fowler. The stickiest point appeared to be at the back: where the rules called for 15 feet between the building and the propety line, Huffines’ design left none.
“We do have to treat them on an equal footing with all the other folks who come to us and have to justify their minimum (setback) requirements, which we’ve been rather stringent about in other cases,” board Vice Chairwoman Natasha Nazareth-Phelps said.
“Any discussion further?” Chairman George Kolasa asked.
At that point, city Senior Attorney Emanuel McGirt stepped up with a point to make: As of Sept. 1, the minimum setback rule goes off the books in Durham, to make the local regulation compliant with a state law the General Assembly approved in 2013.
“Are you saying we should follow state law?” board member Sandy Ogburn asked.
“Yes,” said McGirt.
M.M. Fowler got its variances by unanimous vote.