NORTH LIBERTY– When does a gas station not resemble a gas station?
When it sits in the heart of North Liberty, apparently.
At their Dec. 27 meeting, the North Liberty City Council spent more than an hour debating the appearance of a proposed new Casey’s convenience store.
Casey’s General Stores, Inc., has operated a gas station and convenience store for 33 years in North Liberty, at the corner of Zeller Street and Highway 965, and opened a second location near Interstate 380 five years ago. Earlier this year, Casey’s Marketing Company submitted a site plan to the City of North Liberty for a new store to be located on the southwest corner of Cherry Street and Highway 965. Casey’s purchase of the property is contingent upon the council’s approval of the site plan. However, the city’s Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission recommended denial of the site plan application and it met only narrow council approval last week.
Due to the location’s proximity to the Liberty Centre commerce area, city leaders have a definite idea of how they want commercial properties to look in that neighborhood, and what they envision didn’t match the rendering presented.
At the P&Z Commission’s Dec. 6, City Planner Dean Wheatley said it took a number of months to hammer out details between city staff and Casey’s representatives, and communication had not always been smooth, but the site plan met the city’s code requirements, and Casey’s had taken a number of steps to meet the city’s requests for upgrading the project.
“This is what I would call our hundred percent area,” Wheatley said. “This is the central part of town, where we have a type of development going that’s a higher quality commercial building. What we’re creating here is a sense of place, and it’s working well. We get a lot of compliments on it.”
In keeping with that aesthetic, Wheatley said Casey’s engineer had decreased the size of the site’s concrete pad, agreed to cover the gas pump canopy posts with masonry materials, tucked all heating and cooling equipment out of sight and enhanced the landscaping plan. “This site plan fits in well for that area,” Wheatley told the P&Z Commission in December.
Unresolved at the P&Z meeting was whether Casey’s would install a sidewalk along the southern side of the building, a walkway that would currently lead to nowhere since the property to the south remains undeveloped. In response, Casey’s asked to defer building the southerly sidewalk until development occurred, but agreed to be financially responsible for its eventual installment. Also, Casey’s was asked to decoratively stain and stamp its private sidewalk to the north to mimic sidewalks surrounding the new commercial development across Cherry Street; a suggestion the company first balked at, but to which the P&Z commissioners held fast.
“Since it’s so close to the existing Veatch’s complex, which looks very nice…I know it’s cosmetic and I know there will be additional expenses, but I feel to tie it in, the exterior of the Casey’s needs to match the exterior of Veatch’s,” said P&Z member Josh Covert, referring to the new office complex built by optometrist Dr. Ryan Veatch.
P&Z members also expressed concerns about depreciation of the building’s appearance over time, and whether or not a gas station fit within the current use of the area. P&Z commissioner Carol Haack summed up the argument for the petitioners.
“It’s just Liberty Centre; we’ve got such a nice thing going with the pond and the sidewalk and the bridge and the nice buildings…it’s just aesthetically nicer than this. Would I necessarily like any gas station there? Probably not. It’s just such a nice area, and this (Casey’s) is going to stick out and look like a sore thumb,” said Haack.
A motion to approve the site plan, which included stipulations for the decorative sidewalk and installation of a future sidewalk, failed 5-2 at the P&Z meeting.
Still, Casey’s representatives brought the site plan before the council last Tuesday anyway.
By the time they returned to the council’s podium, Casey’s had verbally acquiesced to both sidewalk stipulations, despite feeling the P&Z commission was not legally entitled to deny the plan based on the building’s appearance.
“We think we have met all the conditions,” said attorney Douglas Beech, representing Casey’s Marketing Company. “We remind everyone that this is a permitted use at this location, and we have met all conditions except for the sidewalks. We believe we meet all the legal requirements.”
But if P&Z hoped for something better, the council wanted something more.
“We are hearing some resistance to upgrading it so it fits our Liberty Centre area,” Mayor Tom Salm told Beech. “This whole area is going to be a diamond once we get done with it. We would like you guys to be part of it, and we want it to look a little nicer. Legally or not.”
And councilor Chris Hoffman said he wished for something differently entirely.
“When I heard that there was a gas station going here, quite honestly I was very upset and disappointed,” said Hoffman. “Our community has invested a lot of time and energy in that center, and just to put a gas station there kind of depletes the energy and effort of the people that have put time and money into that project.”
Hoffman also had concerns about the store’s appearance.
“I don’t want it to look like a gas station when I turn onto Cherry Street. I want it to blend in with the nice professional buildings to the north. This looks like a gas station that you drive into in Solon, Iowa, or it looks like the one on the Coralville strip, because they haven’t invested the same kind of way we have invested in this Liberty Centre. This is a pretty sensitive area.”
Though the building design exceeds the city’s requirement of at least 60 percent masonry covering, a majority of the council wanted Casey’s to include different colors of brick or surface material to break up the building’s monotonous facade. Council member Coleen Chipman asked how Casey’s might improve the facade without adding great expense, and Wheatley said many stores add limestone-look materials to their corners.
Hoffman remained unconvinced.
“I still don’t like the idea of just adding limestone to the corner of this building, because it still looks like a gas station,” said Hoffman.
Beech acknowledged the council’s comments, but countered, “This is a very nice gas station.
“We think it blends very well with the area and the development to the north. We think it is a beautiful store and will be an asset to your community,” said Beech. “We run a good operation. We don’t sell adult products, we don’t have people loitering in our stores. We have very few stores that go 24 hours. I think you’ll be very happy.”
After reassurance from Beech that Casey’s would comply, council member Terry Donahue moved to approve the site plan with stipulations that it be changed to include an enhanced brick facade, decorative sidewalks and the southerly sidewalk to be added at a future date.
During discussion, Hoffman instead moved to table action on the plan, but his motion was defeated 3-2.
With Donahue’s motion still alive, the council agreed by verbal consensus to allow Casey’s to revise the site plan to city staff’s satisfaction, and abdicated authority for its final approval to Wheatley.
Further, the council agreed to allow City Attorney Scott Peterson to give final approval to the site plan agreement, the document outlining the legal details of Casey’s obligations for the project at the site plan level.
City Administrator Ryan Heiar questioned the move.
“That puts a lot of pressure on Dean,” said Heiar, “so let’s make that noted in the minutes that it is going to be a staff decision.”
Council member Gerry Kuhl interjected to say he was fine with the decision.
“It says we trust our city staff to come back with something the council wants,” said Kuhl.
According to Casey’s representative Joann Dyer, once the new Casey’s store is operational, the company will remove the fuel tanks and pumps from the old Casey’s building and market the property for future commercial use.