84 Lumber gets denied again

Representatives of 84 Lumber presented a lengthy case for an expansion at the company’s Clarksville site before the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) on Thursday, March 10.

In doing so, they cited efforts to allay previously expressed concerns about such a plan. But the commissioners, by a narrow 3-2 margin, declared they were unconvinced by those arguments.

More convincing for the commissioners were the counterarguments from the property’s neighbors and letters from state Rep. Gerald Hocker and Sen. George Bunting that urged caution and consideration on the part of the commissioners, particularly in terms of the project’s impact on traffic.

The successful motion for the denial noted that the project did “not promote the convenience and welfare of the residents” and that granting approval for the expansion “would be to grant the expansion of an annoying and dangerous traffic situation.” Finally, the project was deemed simply not to be in character with other businesses in the area.

Earlier motions to give preliminary approval to the project (with many conditions) or to defer commission action for further discussion both died for lack of a second from the commission.

During their discussion of the Pierce-Hardy application for the conditional use for the expansion, commissioners opposing the plan made their objections clear, and those objections went well beyond the size of the parcel (considered too small in a 2004 application).

“This would be making a bad situation worse. The only way it would get better would be if they move,” one commissioner said, having heard from the property’s neighbors a litany of complaints about noise, light and traffic.

“If Mr. (Joe) Hardy (84 Lumber founder and CEO) wants to have that kind of capability, he’ll move that store. He is a man of substantial means,” the commissioner noted.

Though they refused to re-admit statements opposing the 2004 application (acknowledging that changes in the 2005 plan and the simple passage of time might render some of the statements outdated), the focus of the commissioners’ objections to the plan were the ongoing complaints about the existing operation from its neighbors.

In many ways, those objections are rooted in 84 Lumber’s very existence on the commercial parcel adjoining the proposed expansion site and how it originally came to be located there.

Attorney Norman Barnett, representing a group opposed to the expansion, noted the property that currently houses 84 Lumber in Clarksville was originally an agricultural parcel, owned by Bob’s Marine. Neighbors at that time were primarily farms, residences and “mom-and-pop” businesses, he said.

The marine company had applied to P&Z more than a decade ago for rezoning of the property as commercial, he said, with a stated plan to use it for boat storage.

Barnett argued that the neighbors of the parcel at that time had not objected to the commercial rezoning only because the extent of its future use had not been considered, merely the plan to use it for boat storage.

But once the commercial zoning was granted, he said, the parcel was never actually used for boat storage, instead soon being sold to 84 Lumber, which then used the 3.8-acre parcel to establish the lumber yard.

Neighbors Matt and Cheryl Hammond said the existing 84 Lumber operation was already a problem for them and their small “farmette,” with employees still loading lumber deliveries until well past the business’ normal daily hours (despite previous suggestions that increased staff would solve that problem) —– sometimes as late as 11 p.m.

The site’s lights, the Hammonds said, had so severely impacted the feeding schedules of their herd of sheep that they had been forced to give up raising the animals. The noise and diesel exhaust from delivery trucks parked and left running overnight were also a concern for the Hammonds.

According to Pierce-Hardy attorney Jim Fuqua, the stated reasons why P&Z had denied their application for commercial rezoning of the adjoining 8-acre property in 2004 were:

1) no need for additional C-1 zoning in that area, and, due to configuration of the 8-acre site, concern about high density residential use (allowed in a C-1 zone);

2) lack of a proper entrance (the existing one is shared with the funeral home); delivery trucks blocking the entrance, causing traffic problems on Route 26; and no additional road frontage in the 2004 plan;

3) the parcel was not large enough for the proposed use, with insufficient frontage for the proposed entrance; and

4) concern about the site becoming a distribution center, with noise from fabrication uses on site.

Fuqua noted that the new 2005 plan had been designed on 23 acres (of more than 70 acres purchased) to address a number of those concerns by:

• providing additional frontage for a proper entrance that would bring trucks off the highway and onto a service road, then into a larger parking area;

• enlarging the parcel but condensing the proposed configuration on 5 acres to minimize impact on the larger property’s woodlands and wetlands, as well as its neighbors; and

• making assurances the site would not be a distribution center.

Keith Parsell, owner of the neighboring Parsell Funeral Home (located to the east of the existing 84 Lumber property), did allow that the company had made some efforts to correct his concerns from 2004, including adding a sign telling delivery drivers not to park on Parsell Funeral Home property and fixes to a stormwater problem.

But neither those efforts nor the changes from the 2004 plan went nearly far enough toward addressing the problems, Parsell said.

He presented photographs he said “indicate continual abuse by this company” in not directing truck traffic, not telling truck drivers not to park in problematic locations, repeated abuse of the parking by a particular 84 Lumber-owned truck and its driver, traffic through the yard of Parsell Funeral Home and debris coming from the lumber yard onto his property.

In at least one case, Parsell said, he’d had to forcefully confront a delivery driver parked in a location that blocked any access to the funeral home, with the arrival of a grieving family due in the immediate future.

Fuquay argued that 84 Lumber had chosen expansion at the Clarksville site to better serve the burgeoning home-building and contracting needs of the immediate beach area — a need he said was not as well served by bringing the company’s delivery trucks for longer stretches on the same roads from its Selbyville or Georgetown stores.

Fuquy said the enlarged storage space called for on the plan would help minimize the number of deliveries needed, by allowing 84 Lumber to store more materials on site at a given time.

But opponents questioned whether the company’s business interests would really be served in keeping more inventory in storage, versus continuing to expand its business at the location and thereby once again increasing the number of deliveries needed.

Though he agreed that 84 Lumber’s business had likely grown in the years since it first came to the location, Parsell argued that was no reason to grant the company an expansion at the Clarksville location.

“My business has grown too, yet I have multiple locations,” he said. “I do everything in my power to maintain my properties, be a good neighbor, do everything possible to present it in the best light for the business, neighbors and property; 84 Lumber does not do the same.”

Not even Hardy’s suggestion that he might use as parkland the remainder of the 79 acres purchased was enough to set minds at ease about the expansion plan. In fact, neighbors continuously returned to the question of the extended access road that was shown on the plan.

The road continues well beyond the new parking location and to the back of the property, leading to suggestions (denied by Hardy) that it might be one way to provide access for a potential residential development on the property in the future.

Barnett closed his arguments before the commissioners by again returning to the company’s history at the location. “This business has a 10-year track record as absentee owners, of not being good neighbors. They’ve told people they were going to do things and didn’t do them,” he said.

He questioned the ability to rely on the company to effectively respond to the neighbors’ complaints and any restrictions available to the commission.

Along with use restrictions suggested by Pierce-Hardy to address some of the stated concerns, the commissioners had also received a recommendation from the Department of Agriculture noting that, while the expansion was consistent with generally accepted uses, Pierce-Hardy should be required to make some accommodations.

Among those accommodations was the requirement to maintain 30-foot vegetated buffer on the property. The recommendation further noted the plan had the potential to be detrimental to agriculture and that additional protections for the neighbors should be required. Concerns about the project were legitimate, the recommendation said, and solutions need to be developed and implemented.

However, the idea of allowing the expansion project — even with many restrictions and conditions in place — was not acceptable to Barnett and the group of opponents he represented.

“You can put conditions on them, but there is little enforcement available on noise restrictions or hours of operation. You have to rely on someone’s good faith,” he said. “They created their own hardship and are asking you to solve it for them and push the neighbors out.”

The opposition group instead suggested 84 Lumber’s locations in Selbyville and Georgetown were far more appropriate sites for expansion, with both locations on dual-lane highways.

Commissioners cautioned Barnett and the neighbors to be realistic about the impact of a denial for the application. “You realize that if we turn this down, you’ll have the same noise, the same problems; it won’t stop the traffic,” they were warned. The neighbors accepted that argument, but responded that at least those problems wouldn’t be coming any closer to their properties in the case of a denial.

Indeed, at least one commissioner objected to the mere idea that the expansion should be allowed on the face of arguments it would improve the existing problems. “People were initially taken in by a seemingly innocuous proposal. It insults my intelligence to think he’ll double the size of facility and have fewer trucks.” In fact, he suggested, “If we deny it now, maybe he’ll go somewhere else.”

Whether that will be the case remains to be seen, but the issue is once again closed before the county’s Planning & Zoning Commission. The application was set to go before the Sussex County Council in April.

Also at the March 10 P&Z meeting:

• Commissioners unanimously voted to recommend approval for conditional use of the 2.67-acre property of Oneida Justice northwest of Road 362 (Parker House Road) and south of Road 368. The conditional use would allow Justice’s brother, Paul Justice of Paul’s Sand & Gravel, to use the property for a contractor’s equipment storage building and yard. The property adjoins the company’s existing commercially zoned parcel.

Justice had mentioned potential future plans to rent storage to other contractors, but the commissioners imposed conditions requiring no rental of buildings under the application, use by the owner(s) only, submission of a site plan for buildings to be approved by commissioners, a chain-link fenced storage yard, and security lights screened not to shine on neighbors’ properties. (Rental would be allowed on the commercial property, they said.)

• The commissioners unanimously voted to recommend approval for a change from AR-1 Agricultural Residential District to C-1 General Commercial District for a 1.61 acre parcel owned by Edward and Darlene Gartside east of Route 20 and south of Road 383. The property adjoins the Gartsides’ restaurant property and would house a small apparel and gift shop run by Darlene Gartside. Commissioners noted there would be no negative impact from the change, as there is already commercial development in the area.

• Commissioners unanimously voted to recommend approval for the subdivision of a 4.04-acre property owned by Lynn Nicole Santarelli into two lots, as well as a variance from the maximum allowed cul-de-sac length of 1,000 feet. The property is in the AR-1 Agricultural Residential District, located north of Road 365 and south of Road 368. Santarelli said she planned to eventually build a home on one lot, requiring an extended access road from the front of the property.

• Commissioners voted to grant extensions for previously permitted use for: 1) The Verandas, located on the south side of Route 54, until March 2006; and 2) Waterside/White’s Creek Landing/The Inlet at Pine Grove (located off Route 26, northeast of Murray’s Haven), until January 2006. Both projects are still awaiting approvals from various agencies.

The next meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 31, in Georgetown.