Live Blog: Dillons receives approval from Board of Zoning Appeals

The Dillons project on South Mass. Street is up for a pair of key votes at Thursday night’s Board of Zoning Appeals meeting at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.

The proposed new store will be about 10,000 square feet larger than the existing 35,000-square-foot space.

Read more about the proposal and come back at 6:30 p.m. for live updates from the meeting.

If you’re on Twitter, ask questions or tweet about the updates using the #dillons hashtag. Comments are always welcome, too!

6:29 p.m. What has the world come to? We’re live blogging a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting. But the room is starting to get a bit full, and the meeting will begin shortly. The Dillons item is first on the agenda.

Also, I add my standard disclaimer about live blogs. Names sometimes are hard to hear, so I may not be able to give full identification of all speakers. Also, none of what I write tonight has the benefit of going through a copy editor. I will try not to butcher the language too much.

Chair James Lowe asks for a presentation from staff. City Planner David Guntert explains one variance is related to a reduction in the setbacks for front and rear yard setbacks. The code requires 25 feet set back. The applicant wants that reduced to zero feet.

Second variance is asking for a reduction in the amount of parking for the 45,000 square foot store. Code requires 150 spaces. Applicant is seeking to have 129 spaces.

Guntert explains that there has been some activity on the project since the last board of zoning appeals meeting in January. A stakeholder meeting was held with representatives from Dillons and city staff. Some site plan modifications have been proposed. They include: shifting of building five feet farther to the north to gain some additional improvement of site visibility for the adjacent business owner to the south (On the Rocks liquor store); also adding speed humps and striped crosswalk at the store’s entrance; more screening for the loading area on the southwestern corner of the building; proposing removal bollards on the New Hampshire street access so that it would be an ingress only for the majority of the time. But there would be the ability to remove the bollards to allow trucks to have access to the loading zone.

Dillons also has submitted information from the Institute of Traffic Engineers that says a grocery store of the proposed size would need 118 parking spaces, which is less than what Dillons is proposing for this store.

Staff’s recommendation is for approval of the variances.

It seems a major piece of information from that summary is that Dillons is making an effort to limit the amount of traffic that would use the New Hampshire street driveway. Board members are now asking for more information about how the bollards would work. Guntert said they usually are bolted in place.

Chair Jamie Lowe said the bollard essentially would make the N.H. access a one-way drive going west. Guntert said that was correct.

Dillons now begins its presentations. Brian Fulmer with Dillons real estate is presenting.

“We think we have a better proposal tonight to submit to the BZA board,” Fulmer said.

He said he believes the new site plan does a good job of addressing all the comments they’ve received from neighbors. Shifting the building five feet provides better sight lines and access to On the Rocks liquor store. Said the raised crosswalk is designed to slow down people who try to use the drive as access from N.H. to Massachusetts street.

“The bollards are basically there to limit anyone from exiting onto New Hampshire during non-specified times,” Fulmer said.

He said the bollards would be in place during morning and evening rush hours. They also could be used during game day traffic, if needed. But Dillons wants to have the ability to use the driveway during some times because it needs it for delivery trucks. He also said Dillons would try to take other steps to address traffic concerns.

“Kroger is committed to helping not hindering traffic in the neighborhood,” Fulmer said. “We’ve agreed to make a donation to traffic calming devices in the neighborhood.”

Fulmer also said delivery trucks that use that access point would need to be completed before noon. Most, he said, are completed before 10 a.m. currently.

7 p.m. An engineer for Dillons explains in further detail the efforts Dillons is making to ensure that the business sign for On the Rocks remains visible.

Commissioner Joshua Mahoney asks how far the Dillons store actually will be back from the curb of Massachusetts Street. The engineer said about 25 feet. There will be a sidewalk that is between the street and the store entrance.

On parking, Fulmer said the store currently has 149 spaces. Previously, staff reported it was 179 but it actually is 149. He said Dillons has been reducing the size of its parking lots company wide. He said that has been a desire of customers and also building codes.

Fulmer said the company spent more than year designing a store that faces Massachusetts Street but was unable to come up with an feasible design. All options came up with a large basement that would have made several work areas

“We are at a standstill on design. We need the sideyard variances and the parking variances in order to proceed,” Fulmer said.

Board member Thomas Christie asked about parking. He said he went there several times near 5 p.m. in the afternoon, and Dillons parking lot was full.

“It seems like with the site plan that is proposed, it would be very easy for parking to spill over into the On the Rocks,” Christie said.

Asks what recourse anybody would have if this plan is approved with too few parking spaces.

“I would rather deal with this now than later,” Christie said.

Fulmer said the design of the parking lot is more efficient. He’s confident the number of parking spaces will be enough to meet demand.

Christie also asks how the building was moved five feet without reducing the amount of parking. The engineer said a few parking spaces were made smaller and would be labeled for compact cars. One landscaping island will be slightly narrower.

Christie also asks what type of landscaping will be on the New Hampshire side of the store. The engineer said there will be landscaping on the New Hampshire side. Lanscaping totals will go from about 1,800 square feet currently to about 19,000 square feet of landscaping.

7:13 Chair opens it up for public comment.

Tom Kern, president of Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. Says Dillons employs over 400 people in Lawrence and is a large producer of sales tax producer. The Mass Street store is expected to create about 40 new jobs over the the existing total of 77 jobs. Said the project will generate about $8 million to $10 million in construction of activity.

“This project literally will create hundreds of construction jobs for contractors and suppliers,” Kern said.

Bob Gent, lives right behind the store. Appreciates the efforts Dillons has put into this. “I’m not sure all the concerns of the people close to the store have been well addressed yet,” Gent said.

“We are deeply concerned about the truck traffic,” Gent said. “They have been driving on the lawns across the street from that dock all along. They have trashed the curbs more than once. I’m not certain that is going to be addressed very well.”

Gent said one truck drove 10 to 15 feet across a sidewalk into a yard and bottomed out and then had to be towed at 3 a.m. in the morning.

Jason Newhouse with Family Video, which still owns the real estate where On the Rocks sits. He questions whether the parking standards are adequate. He said Dillons at the last meeting

“They are going to increase the amount of business while decreasing the amount of parking,” Newhouse said. “The overflow is going to have to go into the On the Rocks parking lot.”

Thinks most folks won’t walk to a grocery store.

“I rarely see people walking through neighborhoods with bags and bags of groceries,” Newhouse said.

He also said if the store has more employees that also is going to create a strain on parking.

“Where are those new employees going to park?” Newhouse asked.

He’s also concerned that the way the access points are designed that truck traffic will tear

Jenny, an owner of On the Rocks Discount Liquor

“I want Dillons to rebuild,” Jenny said. “I want a new Dillons. We are all avid coffee drinkers and would love to have a coffee shop as proposed.”

She had several questions. She wants to know more about how the bollards would be used. She’s concerned about full size semi trucks accessing the store.

“I’m curious about what recourse I have if they are taking up my parking,” she said.

She’s also concerned that many of the parking lot medians are going to get damaged and will look poor. She is concerned about how the back of the store looks currently. She thinks it has a trash problem. The back of the store in the new plan will be what most of her customers see, she said.

She asks what would stop the delivery trucks from going through On the Rocks parking lot and using the N.H. street access point that On the Rocks has.

She also mentions that there is an effort to allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer. She said it is odd that Dillons now has a proposal that is reducing the visibility of a liquor store. She expressed disappointment with Dillons attitude on the issue.

“It seems like they don’t really care,” she said. “We’ve offered several compromises but it doesn’t seem like they are in the mood to compromise.”

Commissioner Mahoney asks for specific examples of how this project would negatively impact her business.

She said the sight distance was a concern. Motorists heading south will not see her store in time to pull into the store.

“It will look like we are in the alleyway of a grocery store,” she said.

She also said overflow parking into her parking lot would be negative for business.

Commissioner Carol Von Tersch asks what compromises were offered to Dillons.

She said asked for 15 feet separation instead of the full 25 feet required by code. Also asked for windows on the back of the store to make it look less like a store.

Jack Martin. Lives in the neighborhood. Supports the project. “Having gone to this store and having gone to the store on Sixth Street, it is like night and day. I hope perfect will not be the enemy of the pretty darn good.”

Austin Turney. Member of Barker neighborhood. “We want Dillons to stay at 1740 Mass. It anchors the shopping center.”

Said the current store is “cramped.” Supports the variances for the setbacks. Points out that all the residents on N.H. Street, he believes, moved there after the store was there. Said he finds some of the traffic concerns on N.H. or 18th Street to be “overblown.”

Turney said he does have a concern about the limited amount of parking spaces. Thinks employee parking and Babcock parking may take up some valuable customer parking. He also said he noticed all the parking spaces are straight instead of angled, which would create more backing and turning that could be more dangerous for pedestrians.

Rob Farha, a co-owner of a six-plex apartment complex immediately north of the store. He said he once had a contract with Dillons to sell the store. He said that would have allowed for more parking.

“I’ve accepted the fact they no longer need our property at this time,” Farha said.

He shows the layout of a 43,000 square foot building that faces Mass. Street. He said he hired an architect to draw the plans. The layout shows how the store could be built facing west even if his property is not acquired.

Farha said if this project moves forward he wants cross access agreements that would allow his building to be redeveloped commercially.

Gale S., a representative of Babcock Tenants Association. Group has 120 tenants. They are regular customers of Dillons. They are pleased to have an in house pharmacy. They are very pleased with extended deli and dining area. They really like the north facing interest and appreciate having a sidewalk that will connect the store to Babcock. They’re pretty excited about Starbucks.

Matt Gough, an attorney representing Farha and the ownership group of the apartment building. He said Dillons has not met the legal requirements for a zoning.

“This has nothing to do with the uniqueness of Dillons’ property,” Gough said. “It has everything to do with their choice.”

Says the law requires Dillons to show that the variances will fix a problem that they did not create.

“Dillons needs a variance because it can’t fit the size of the store it wants on the property is has,” Gough said.

Said this does not meet the definition of an undue hardship as defined by law.

“Kroger is a huge company and they are trying to save a little bit of money by testing the limits of the city’s code,” Gough said. “They want to see how much we will bend.”

He said this isn’t about not wanting Dillons. “Everybody in this room wants a Dillons.”

“The question before you tonight is whether they will be allowed to develop the cheap way, or whether they will be made to do it the right way,” Gough said.

Commissioner Jim Carpenter asks for specific examples about what hardships would create. Gough said increased wear and tear on the On the Rocks parking lot, trash, moving the store closer to neighboring lawns despite the fact that trucks already get into the lawns of neighbors.

Carpenter brings up that he believes much of this discussion that Gough is having is to create a “factual record” that could be used in appealing this case to District Court if the Board of Zoning appeals doesn’t rule favorably towards his client. Gough doesn’t respond to that.

Austin Turney (Jr. perhaps). In other words it is somebody different than the first Austin Turney. Said neighbors who buy next to a commercial property are going to be adversely affected anytime the business becomes more successful.

“I’m not sure owners next to an commercial property have much right to talk about the adverse impact of increased traffic created by a business,” Turney said. “Traffic is part of a commercial property.”

“Hopefully the interest of the 50 people who live in a one block area one be weighed much more heavily than the 5,000 to 10,000 East Lawrence residents who also will benefit from this project,” Turney said.

He said he is concerned Dillons could make a good business decision to close the store and abandon the site, especially since there is a Dillons on 23rd Street.

“You should keep in mind the broader interest of the neighborhood,” he said.

New speaker. I did not get her name.

She said the store is a driving destination. “We need to be real about that,” she said.

Said having a loading dock so close to the front door of On the Rocks, would not be feasible.

“We want a new store, but we don’t want a new store at all costs,” she said. “We think it is a great location. If Dillons moved out, we don’t know who might come in. I don’t know why we are letting fear dictate what would do at this stage of the game.”

Shows a photo of a yard with ruts from a delivery truck.

Commissioner Mahoney asks how we know those ruts are caused by Dillons trucks.

She said there is no way to know because she didn’t see the trucks make the ruts but believes it is “highly likely.”

Thinks the loading dock that would face Mass. Street, would be “another trashy thing on Mass. Street, and I don’t know why we would want to do that.”

On the parking variance, she said “I think you are taking a risk there.” She said if this is passed it needs to be done with a condition that creates a mechanism for the neighbors to receive help if parking problems arise. She said that might be a compromise the neighbors could live with.

Alan Zimmerman. Lives one block east of the store approximately. He is in favor of the store. Has some concerns. The primary one is the amount of property. Thinks 129 spaces probably will be enough. He’s not sure he’s every seen that parking lot full. Thinks the reason the commissioner saw the parking lot full was because it was right before a very large snowfall.

Thinks moving the loading dock to the opposite end of the building is a positive for the adjacent apartment building. Can understand the concern from On the Rocks. Thinks that Dillons will keep the loading dock area that faces Mass. Street cleaner than what they keep the N.H. street loading area that currently exists.

“I think it would be a tragedy if we end up losing that store there,” Zimmerman said.

Said if that store is lost, the undue hardship would be on the 150 people who live at Babcock Place.

Jenny from On the Rocks speaks again. Clarifies a couple of points about the amount of traffic that goes through her parking lot currently from Dillons. Shows a picture of four delivery trucks lined up at the Dillons store. She questions where four trucks are going to be under the current configuration.

“I can tell you right now they aren’t going to be in my parking lot,” she said. “I have my own customers and my own trucks.”

Shows what she said is current pictures that shows trash on the back side of the store.

Said she understands that Dillons has bought the property where it once was leased. She thinks it is very unlikely that Dillons will leave the area.

Andy Gloomer (perhaps). Said he isn’t sure he agrees with Dillons assertion that it has 149 spaces currently. He thinks it is 170 plus spaces. Asks staff to pull up an aerial of the parking lot. He points to several parking spaces on the aerial photo and thinks there are closer to 170 spaces.

The Dillons engineer rises to respond. Shows a survey that has specific numbers for the parking. Says it is 149 per the survey.

8:31 public comment ends. Board begins discussion.

Comm Christie wants Dillons to answer some of the questions brought up by the public.

Comm Mahoney asks about the public parking on the east side of N.H. street. Is there a plan to remove. Staff says there is no plan that he knows of.

Comm. Carpenter. Asks about using the Institute of Traffic Engineers guidelines for parking. Staff says it is simply another standard recognized in the industry. “We believe that based on our review, it may work in this case and anecodotaely there is evidence of this store serving walking, biking and motor scooter clientele,” said Guntert, a member of the staff.

Comm Kimball notes that it appears the current Dillons store does not meet all the 25 foot setback requirement. Dillons confirms that is the case. Asks if a variance was granted previously to the setback issue.

Guntert said he doesn’t know.

Guntert notes that the Family Video store, which is now On the Rocks, did request setback variances for their buiding when it was redeveloped.

Comm Christie asks where overflow delivery trucks would go. Dillons representative said about 65 trucks make delivery on on weekly basis. Said the semis will use the N.H. side loading dock. Said the smaller trucks, the area has enough room to handle three trucks at a time.

Christie asks about concern that trucks will drive across On the Rocks to get to N.H. to get to 19th Street. Dillons representative said there will be plenty of room for the trucks to pull out directly onto Mass and there will be no need to go across On the Rocks parking lot.

Christie asks how the neighbors can deal with variances if there are problems. Dillons representative said. “We are dedicated to the city of Lawrence. We have been here since 1950. I think there are a lot of people who would say we have been responsive to neighbors.”

He said you can always talk to the store manager. The district manager can be contacted. Corporate offices can be taken. He said there is no reason for Dillons to be a bad neighbor.

Christie asks how much of a boost in business this larger store would be for Dillons. The representative said Dillons generally doesn’t share that information. He does confirm that the new store would be open 24 hours.

Christie asks if some false windows could be added to the back of the store. Dillons representative the reason the window feature didn’t go very far is because there may be some ivy and other architectural features near there. Dillons also doesn’t like the idea of putting windows that show into their backroom operations.

Comm Carpenter asks about the loading dock on N.H. He said he has seen trucks go into the yards. Does the new design make it easier for the semis to stay on the street. Dillons rep. says it has. The dock has been pushed 10 feet into the building, which provides a greater radius to allow turns. Says the area is deep enough so that a semi backed up to the dock no longer will block a lane of traffic on N.H.

Fulmer, the Dillons rep., gives other details of the store design. Said a major factor is the store will be built with wider aisles. All aisles will be 7 feet wide.

Jim K. an attorney for Dillons. He addresses a question about why not granting the variance would create an undue hardship. He notes that the standards for granting a variance are somewhat subjective. Says Gough, the attorney, cited old case law previously. He said courts recognize that how business is done today is different than it used to be done. That can factor into the reasons for granting a variance.

8:57 Commission deliberation begins.

Mahoney says he saw no evidence that the “rights” of the property owners would be impacted. “I heard some specualation that they could be or might be, but I saw no data to prove that.”

Comm. Kimball said he believes Dillons has shown that the new building won’t impact the visibility of the store’s sign significantly. Comm Von Tersch isn’t so sure.

Comm Lowe asks if there is a motion.

Von Tersch said she has a couple of comments. Said she heard the argument that there would be a hardship on the community if it didn’t go forward. “It does look like a good project. I hear the comments about how much it would hurt on the rocks, but I have a sense the overall investment dillons will make in the area will have a positive impact on the entire area by bringing a larger clientele and increased sales. I think it will have a positive impact for the entire community.”

Carpenter said he wants to speak to the hardship issues. He said the attorney’s definition of a hardship is almost 35 years old. He said much has changed about planning in the last 35 years.

“We are adopting new standards as a community, and that includes denser building,” Carpenter said. “What we have here is an old suburban drive in strip mall from the 60s that has been modified over time. I think they are limited in what they can do there with the expectations the community has for a shopping center today.”

Thinks not allowing the variances will create an undue hardship.

Carpenter said he thinks the number of parking spaces will exceed the number of spaces in many similar size grocery stores. He said On the Rocks can sign the property to limit it to parking for their customers only. But Carpenter said he does want these variances to be tied to approval of Dillons’ site plan. If the site plan is ultimately denied, the variances would not be approved.

Lowe said he’s not sure how that would work. Once it is built, it is built. Carpenter said he understands that but this would provide some protection that the variances aren’t used to build something else.

“Most of the issues we have heard are really site plan issues that we can’t deal with here,” Carpenter said.

Motion to grant the variances conditioned upon the variances being used to build this particular project.

approved 6-0.

That’s the end of the Dillons issue. The project now must win site plan approval from the city before it can begin construction. A representative with Dillons said no timeline for when construction on the store could begin.