KEVIN LEININGER: Proposed change in zoning law could finally ease city’s gas (station) pains

Some neighbors weren't happy when this gas station was built at West Main Street and Runnion Avenue a couple of years ago. A new proposal could make it more difficult to build such stations all over town. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Glynn Hines
Mike Joyner
Kevin Leininger

You might not think so, but the proliferation of gas stations has vexed city officials and residents alike since at least 2009, when the Fort Wayne Plan Commission cited concerns about crime when they rejected a convenience store at South Anthony Boulevard and Antoinette Street. Less than two years ago, similar projects on Paulding Road and Anthony at Pontiac Street were withdrawn in the face of opposition from south-side residents who contend such developments create more problems than they’re worth.

A proposed change in Fort Wayne’s zoning ordinance is intended to address those concerns — and has the full support of a City Council member who insists convenience stores exploit his constituents through predatory prices while making it more difficult to attract full-service groceries and other businesses he and many residents deem more necessary and desirable.

“The idea was to come up with legislation that makes (building gas stations) more difficult. Parts (of the south side) are ‘food deserts,’ ” said Glynn Hines, D-6th.

On Monday the Fort Wayne Plan Commission will conduct a public hearing on a proposal Hines hopes will do just that. Currently, gas stations can either be built on land where the zoning allows such a use or by persuading the Board of Zoning Appeals to approve a “special use” approving construction on land where the zoning would not otherwise allow a gas station. If approved by the Commission and City Council, the amendment essentially would eliminate the “special use” exception, requiring gas station developers either to build on land already properly zoned or to file a rezoning request.

That may seem like a purely bureaucratic change, but the impact could be substantial. As Senior Planner Pat Fahey noted, a special use can be approved solely by the appointed BZA, which has approved seven of 10 such applications since 2014 — none of them on the south side. An application on Sherman Boulevard was denied and two south-side proposals were withdrawn.

Rezoning standards are more stringent, and any such approval by the Plan Commission must be ratified by City Council — where its nine elected members are subject to political persuasion.

The amendment would also limit the ability to expand existing “special use” gas stations and would differentiate between pure convenience stores and gas stations.

That, too, is more than a bureaucratic distinction. During the debate over the proposals on Paulding and Pontiac two years ago, Allen County Council member Sharon Tucker said the south side “needs and wants development, but not gas pumps.” Why? As Fort Wayne Police spokesman Michael Joyner put it, “You are looking at a business that typically stays open 24 hours a day. That in itself is opportunity for those types of business models to constantly attract patrons. Clearly it is the responsibility of these businesses to police themselves being private property, however that’s not to say we have not assisted them when there have been issues.”

When there are issues, he added, the problems “are not just segregated to any one geographic area but across the spectrum.”

There is some truth in that. In November, one man was killed and another wounded near the West State Boulevard Kroger gas station. And in late 2017 a clerk at the Meijer gas station on Lima Road was shot to death. But the reaction to gas stations clearly is strongest on the south side, and not just because of their perceived stifling of other forms of investment.

As I wrote nearly 10 years ago, seven of the 15 gas station-convenience stores that had proposed or built in the previous year had been located southeast. What’s more, between 2007 and 2009 about 1,153 incidents were reported near the intersection of Anthony and McKinnie Avenue, 18 percent of which were directly linked to the gas station there. Of those incidents, 32 percent were violent in nature.

I could be wrong, but my perception is that problems related to gas stations have decreased since then. There’s also little doubt that good management and proper security measures can help prevent such issues. Still, many people clearly believe too many gas stations are going where they don’t belong, and the critics don’t all live south. Some residents on West Main Street weren’t happy when a gas station opened in their mostly residential neighborhood in 2016, and sought zoning changes designed to prevent such things from happening again. This proposed change would accomplish much the same but on a larger scale. Gas stations would still be allowed, but only in areas where proper zoning would ensure their compatibility.

I’m not convinced gas stations are to blame for the lack of groceries in some areas, and there are non-predatory reasons some items cost more at convenience stores. Still, this sounds like a sensible compromise.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

COMMENTS