By Denise Lana,
(For the Record is the second of a series of informational articles aimed at helping clarify some of the hot-topic issues facing the City of Decorah currently.)
In this edition, Decorah City Manager Travis Goedken helps clarify and define the stance of the City of Decorah and the role of its associated boards, councils and commissions on the proposed private sale of commercial property on College Drive to Kwik Star for the construction of a third store within the city limits.
What is the city’s role regarding the proposed third Kwik Star?
Travis Goedken: “The third Kwik Star idea predates my arrival here [in September 2021], from when this idea first broke. As with anything else in the City of Decorah, there are some folks who don’t like it, and others who are thrilled about it.
With Kwik Star, Decorah’s City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission both have very defined rules they can use to base or weigh their approval on regarding a site plan. Those rules are spelled out in the city’s codes. So, very early on, when we started hearing opposition from the public on Kwik Star, it included things like, “We don’t need a third Kwik Star,” “It’s corporate greed,” “It could put Decorah Mart out of business” … those are all items that the City Council cannot consider as part of site plan approval.
Let me put it into simpler terms. It’d be very similar to the city council saying, “No, Sugar Bowl, we’re not going to approve your site plan, because we already have the Whippy Dip and we don’t want to put the Whippy Dip out of business.”
If I change the scenario and insert two locally owned businesses, you can see where that changes the conversation as opposed to a locally owned business and a privately held corporate firm.”
Is the controversy specifically about a third Kwik Star, or the proposed location for the Kwik Star?
TG: “I think there is a combination of both, based on the public comments we’ve heard like, “We don’t need a third Kwik Star.” These are comments council cannot consider. In addition, the controversy is the area and the feeling that the proposed space could be better utilized. Again, that is not for the council to determine except through the zoning process. But if the idea has already passed the zoning requirements and been determined acceptable, that’s what the city and planning and zoning can determine based on.”
So, putting this into simplified terms, it’d be like saying, “I’m going to fence in my yard at my house, and I want to have XYZ in the backyard, and if my fence and what is in my backyard isn’t violating any city ordinances, the city can’t tell me what I can and cannot do in my yard. The city can’t come to my yard and tell me to remove my trampoline because my neighbor thinks it’s an eyesore.
TG: “Correct. If all the ordinances are being adhered to and there are no rules against it, you have every right to do what you see fit with your property. It’s a private transaction between two parties. If the public, or the city council, or city staff thinks there is a better use for that area, that’s not for those folks to determine. That is between the current property owner and the proposed buyer. City Council needs to make their decision based solely on the site plan.”
Casey’s and Decorah Mart are in the same C-2 zoning area. Is there an ordinance or rule that says the area isn’t zoned for more gas stations?
TG: “According to Decorah’s Municipal Code 17.08.300, a gas station is defined as a structure designed or used for the retail sale and/or wholesale or supply of fuels, lubricants, air, water, washing and polishing services, and other commodities or accessories for motor vehicles and including the customary space and facilities for the installation of such commodities or accessories on or in such vehicles, but not including space or facilities for the storage, painting, major repair, refinishing, body work, or other major servicing of motor vehicles.
When you read through this definition and visualize what it is describing, it is a service station. This is referring to the “ding ding,” ring-a-bell full-service stations.
This section of code was last discussed in 1993. I’m not saying the definition of gas station was updated in 1993, but the last time it was even looked at and touched was 1993. So, that’s where everyone started hearing the argument that, “Ok, if that’s how we are defining a gas station, what Casey’s has is not a gas station, because the definition references nothing about food, nothing about other wares for sale, nothing. It’s just fuels, lubricants, air, water, washing/polishing services and other accessories for motor vehicles. And so, it has nothing to do with the actual convenience store side.
But if I go to the zoning district, C-2, chapter 17.92, the statement that starts this is “The C-2 district is intended to augment the C-3 central business district by accommodating neighborhood convenience and service centers providing limited commercial, personal and professional services.” Regarding the definition of ‘neighborhood convenience center’ — keeping in mind this definition is from 1993 — it is a retail business. But ‘neighborhood convenience center” is also allowed in there for automotive display, sales, service and repair; What does that entail to you? Most people when they hear automotive repairs think of auto body shops, or service centers. When they hear automotive display and sales, they may think of a car dealership. The ordinance does not define any of those things, and they have not been reviewed or defined since 1993.
So, if you have an automotive service, what is an automotive service? Is it buying gas? Is it purchasing a quart of oil? We don’t have it defined. Since our city’s ordinance does not define it, the definition is very broad.
In late 2017, going into 2018, Casey’s was allowed to demolish their building and build a brand-new building. In the paperwork, including the site plan review approved by Planning and Zoning and City Council, it says C-2 zoning district conforming: Yes.
So, convenience stores were apparently not a public issue or concern of that zoning district just a few years ago and we have to uphold the same requirements for all applicants. We can’t now change the rules and say, “Automotive service, sales and retail, whatever a convenience store is, it can’t fit in the C2 district. We can’t do that. Because nothing has changed from the same criteria Casey’s had to abide by in 2017.”
What about Decorah Mart and Casey’s on College Drive being ‘grandfathered’ into being principal permitted use?
TG: “The term ‘grandfathered’ has been heavily used loose and fast lately during the Kwik Star/Casey’s/Decorah Mart discussion. Grandfathered would mean that they are not acceptable uses. Nobody has stated anything about this. The determination that a business is no longer an acceptable permitted principal use has to be a determination made by the zoning administrator or the board of adjustment.
If that was the case, if Casey’s or Kwik Star was grandfathered in from 1993 when the code was last touched, Casey’s would not have been allowed to tear down their building and build a new one. As soon as they touched the building with the intent of rebuilding, the grandfather clause would have been voided. They would not have been allowed to improve and enlarge.
It’s never been determined that Kwik Star was never allowed to be there. That’s how staff and the planning and zoning committee were able to reach the determination that yes, it is a permitted principal use. And we went through all the hoops required. To sum it up, Decorah Mart, Casey’s and the proposed Kwik Star are all three permitted principal uses in the C-2 zones.”