The battle between the city of Gardner and the owners of a used car lot on the south side of Gardner isn’t over. At a May 28 meeting, Gardner planning commissioners suggested that the owners of the lot request a temporary, special use permit rather than hope for a zoning change that would permanently allow the lot to operate in its current location.
City staff presented a number of ways the city and the property owners, Tyrone Jones and Singh, could rectify a city error that could end up costing Jones his life savings and his used car lot business.
Michael Hall, community development director, told planning commissioners that city staff is looking for direction. Hall wasn’t employed by the city when staff planners issued Jones a six-month permit to sell used cars at 18865 Gardner Road. The car lot sits on the same parcel as a convenience, liquor and gas store on the south end of town.
Jones said he was initially told that renewing the six month land-use permit would be a formality.
“I was told we were going to be able to renew it and keep going,” Jones said. “I didn’t know we were doing an experiment.”
However, five months into the permit, city staff notified Jones that the permit was issued in error and could not be renewed. Jones was given until June to apply to rezone the parcel from C-2 commercial, to C-3. Different zoning designations allow different land uses, and used car lots are not allowed in C-2 zoning, as the parcel is currently zoned. The new zoning would allow him to operate the car lot permanently at that location.
However, at a planning commission meeting last month, city staff recommended that planners reject the rezoning request.
“If the city were to approve a rezone, that doesn’t mean the way the property is used today can continue exactly as it is today,” Hall said.
Even with an approved rezoning, city staff might impose conditions on the property like changing parking and circulation issues on the site.
Last month, planners tabled the issue in order to seek other possible solutions.
At the May 28 meeting, Hall presented alternatives to rezoning the property, including a city zoning word changes, or amendment, that would allow used car lots in C-2.
That solution isn’t ideal, Hall told commissioners. That would allow used car lots along major corridors like Main Street and Moonlight Road.
Hall said if a text amendment was approved, Jones would still need to submit a land use permit. City staff may not approve a land use permit without imposing conditions on the property.
The existing zoning does allow for the sale of new cars, and Hall said the zoning definitions could be changed so new and used car sales were treated the same in city code.
“Used cars displayed for sale and the buildings and related effects associated with used car sales are of greater concern than the display of new cars and the facilities associated with new cars,” Hall wrote in a report to the commission. “Yet this approach places them on equal footing with regard to the process required for approval.”
Hall suggested instead that the commission consider granting a two-year special use permit.
Commissioner Greg Godwin said the idea seemed like the easiest way to move forward. At the end of two years, Jones would have the option of seeking to renew the special use permit.
“I wouldn’t be counting on an extension after two years, though,” Godwin said.
Dan Popp, commissioner, agreed that there would be no certainties for the business owner.
“The next commission, the next council may say absolutely not,” Popp said. “That spot is just not conducive for a used car lot.”
Godwin said the business owners should take the two years to get established and then find a different location.
“From my point of view, I think the applicant might want to take advantage of the opportunity that the mistake was made,” Godwin said. “Two years is a good amount of time to establish a business.”
Angie Jones, wife of business owner Tyrone, said if the business were to move, it would not be in Gardner.
“It’s very easy for you to sit there and say,” she said. “Why would I trust the city of Gardner? Why would I reinvest in two years?”
Commissioner Andy Copeland said he is opposed to limiting the car lot to two years.
“They didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “Two years in a business cycle is nothing. It’s not much time. Just think about the letterhead and business cards.”
Copeland was alone in his belief that the city should rezone the property and allow the used car lot to stay indefinitely.
“It’s not ideal, and if someone walked in here and asked for this, we would all say no,” Copeland said. “They did what they were supposed to do, and then the rules changed.”
The rest of the commissioners, however, said they would not be in favor of rezoning the property and suggested the Joneses should instead seek a temporary special use permit.
Meanwhile, Tyrone Jones said the business paid a $920 fee to the city last month in order to seek a rezoning. City officials were not sure that fee could be refunded.
Jones was given a reprieve of sorts, however. He was issued a cease-and-desist letter saying he had 90 days to shutter the car lot, but he will be allowed to continue selling cars at the location until the planning commission and council resolve the issue.
Planning commissioners will likely take up the issue again in August.