Macon-Bibb P&Z restricts where convenience stores are permitted

Health concerns from fuel emissions, impacts on crime and property values, and the prevalence of amusement machines give local leaders pause


Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission Executive Director Jim Thomas, right, goes over agenda items before Monday’s hearing.

In the first Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission meeting of the year, convenience store applications once again dominated the hearing.

Monday marked the first opportunity for applicants to present new convenience store proposals after the 90-day moratorium on applications expired Nov. 23. The commission enacted the three-month moratorium to study issues and negative impacts of the stores to make changes that will reduce the number of potential sites for stores.

Nine convenience store applications were on Monday’s agenda of 31 items taken up during six-and-a-half-hours of meetings that concluded with significant changes made to the codes.

From now on, convenience stores with fuel sales or gas stations without retail will be known as “fueling centers” in the Comprehensive Land Development Resolution that governs P&Z decisions.

Commissioners also approved new store requirements that they admitted would have eliminated from consideration all the convenience store applications on Monday’s agenda.

Going forward, fueling centers must be located on an arterial or collector street – which means a major thoroughfare or street that feeds that main traffic artery.

The fuel pumps, storage tanks and vents must be a minimum of 500 feet from a residence or property that is zoned residential. The lot must be at least an acre and have a minimum street frontage of 150 feet.

The amendment had the support of all the commissioners but Gary Bechtel.

“Might as well do 5,000 feet because none of this is getting approved,” Bechtel said during the discussion.

He favored a minimum of 300 feet between residences and the fuel pumps, tanks and vents.

“I think with 500 feet there will be collateral damage that we will look back and regret,” Bechtel said. “There are going to be entities and owners who are going to do the right thing at the right place that may be discouraged to do what they wish with the 500.”

P&Z’s executive director Jim Thomas, who was supposed to retire at the end of last year but has agreed to stay on until a replacement takes over, noted that the 500-foot restriction would have made it impossible for any of the nine stores on Monday’s agenda to be approved. Before the amendment was voted on, commissioners rejected five stores based on their proximity to neighborhoods and lack of adequate access for fuel trucks.

While studying effects of convenience stores, commissioners learned of research showing potentially harmful levels of cancer-causing benzene from vehicle fueling and venting at distances up to 500 feet.

For more than a year, Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Virgil Watkins has been working to reduce the number of convenience stores because of coin operated amusement machines, or COAMs. Watson believes the games are harmful, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

In Watkins’ crusade to reduce the number of COAMs, he led commissioners to place restrictions on alcohol licenses.

Macon-Bibb County no longer issues an alcohol license to so-called “vice marts,” meaning a convenience store that is less than 10,000 square feet in size and does not have fuel sales or offer at least five different types of fresh fruits or vegetables.

During an October P&Z public hearing, Watkins mentioned the “vice marts” are congregating in poorer sections of town and generate millions of dollars from the machines.

“They get as close to our most vulnerable citizens as they can,” Watkins told P&Z last fall.

The vice mart restriction on alcohol licenses means some smaller stores with amusement machines are adding fuel pumps only to be able to sell alcohol.

Liz Fabian

In Monday’s meeting, P&Z Commissioner Josh Rogers pointed out the potential hazards from having too many fuel centers releasing harmful vapors.

“They’re not building gas stations, they’re building casinos with unnecessary carcinogens,” Rogers said.

He noted that as electric vehicles become more popular, the excessive number of gas stations could lead to more commercial blight.

For months, zoning commissioners have been wrangling with the plethora of convenience store applications.

During the October public hearing, Thomas said: “We have a lot of empty stores. The market can’t support the number of stores that we see.”

Commissioners sought a better way to regulate zoning but not limit competition.

“We operate under a free market system and it’s not zoning’s job to make sure somebody’s making a profit,” Thomas said.

P&Z’s attorney Pope Langstaff drafted the new regulations after he and Thomas pored over other communities’ policies and health studies.

As commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the new distance requirements for fuel centers, Bechtel said he voted against the restrictions not only because he thought they were too severe, but he did not want to invite a slew of applications for variances to the new policy.

Rogers said he would rely on P&Z staff’s judgment to determine whether an application that doesn’t meet the requirements still should be considered.

“If we continue to see variances that are the right thing in the right place… we can change it,” Rogers said.

In other business

  • 5433 Bowman Road – Taco Mac restaurant approved with a variance in parking regulations.
  • 238 Grant Ave. – Community center application deferred to Feb. 14.
  • 1433 Eisenhower Pkwy. – Convenience store with fuel sales approved in existing shopping center.
  • 1928 Shurling Drive – Convenience store with fuel sales denied due to proximity to the neighborhood.
  • 2174 Rocky Creek Road – Convenience store with fuel sales and laundromat denied due to fuel tanks too close to residence.
  • 2360 Gray Hwy. – Single-family cluster development of 90 homes approved on 15 acres.
  • 2500 Shurling Drive – New convenience store with fuel sales and retail lease space denied. Commissioners noted a similar vacant shopping center was nearby. “I think we’re just approving blight here if we do this,” Chairwoman Jeane Easom said in light of the abandoned business on the same stretch of Shurling Drive. “Obviously, this didn’t work.”
  • 2860 Bloomfield Drive – Used auto dealership deferred to Feb. 14 after applicant failed to show.
  • 3160 Jeffersonville Road – Convenience store with fuel sales approved.
  • 3366 Mercer University Drive – Convenience store with fuel sales denied due to proximity to house.
  • 3758 Mercer University Drive – Convenience store with fuel sales denied as property was deemed not suitable for truck access.
  • 4141 Houston Ave. – Convenience store with fuel sales approved.
  • 5588 Forsyth Road – Rezoning from single-family residential to multi-family residential and conditional use approved to allow for a professional office.
  • 5771 New Forsyth Road – Professional office approved.
  • 6011 Bethel Church Road – Conditional use with variance approved to allow for construction of a new convenience store with fuel and alcohol sales.
  • 2999 Weaver Road – Application to allow used auto sales was withdrawn and property owner has seven days to get vehicles off the lot.
  • 110 College St. – Variance in setbacks approved to allow a single-family residence on the foundation of burned-out residence.
  • 259 Casablanca – Adhesive and paint manufacturing facility approved in existing 35,000-square-foot-warehouse near the Downtown Macon Airport,
  • 396 Cherry St. – New signage approved for Fatty’s Pizza’s new location at the corner of Second Street.
  • 563 Cherry St. – Covered porch and balcony approved.
  • 616 Poplar St. – Exterior lights approved for building.
  • 718 College St. – Roof-mounted solar panel system approved.
  • 2463 Carlton Way – Exterior modifications approved
  • 4487 Mead Road and 101 Guy Paine Road – Truck parking facility approved.
  • 6001 Fulton Mill Road – Second dwelling approved on the property.
  • 6265 Hawkinsville Road – Truck driving school approved.
  • 6300 – Moseley Dixon Road – Revisions approved for previously approved site plan to allow for 24 residential frontage lots off Harbor Drive, Great Waters Lane and Basin Way.
  • 1375 Forsyth Street – Exterior modifications approved on house railings.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.