Vancouver auto dealers seek specialized zoning

A group of Vancouver auto dealers is seeking approval of an Auto Dealership Plan District providing revised zoning where multiple dealerships have co-located. The dealers say current zoning does not meet the unique development and marketing needs of their businesses.

Following approval by city staff and the Vancouver Planning Commission earlier this year, city council has expressed interest in obtaining more information and some have raised concerns.

The city’s code allows for the creation of plan districts to "address concerns unique to an area when other zoning mechanisms cannot achieve the desired results."

The city has four existing plan districts under the provision, including the Columbia River Shoreline Enhancement Plan District, Downtown District, Vancouver Central Park Plan District and the Waterfront Plan District. Each district’s zoning allows or discourages specific features not addressed by the code. The code says the areas have special characteristics or constraints of a natural, economic, historic, public facility, transitional use or development nature where existing provisions are inadequate to achieve a desired public benefit or address an identified problem.

The Auto Dealership Plan District differs from the others in that it was applied for by the business owners rather than proposed by the city.

"It gives some flexibility to the applicant," said Azam Babar, city development review services planner. "It’s difficult to draft an ordinance that can address everything out there."

The plan district is proposed for two separate areas. Area 1 encompasses the area traditionally known as the Auto Mall near Andresen and Fourth Plain. Multiple dealerships on the property are owned by Dick Hannah, Alan Webb and Carr Auto Group. Area 2 includes dealerships owned by Jon Creedon northwest of Area 1 near State Route 500 and Andresen.

In particular, the proposed plan district addresses signage issues. Dealers say the current code prohibits them from using signage that directs customers to their desired destinations, adequately promoting their inventory or using displays that attract customers.

The proposed district would give auto dealerships allowances for more and larger signage in specific instances.

The total allowable area of free-standing signs would increase from 1.5 square feet per linear foot of property frontage to 1.75 square feet, with the maximum size of one sign face being no more than 0.875 square feet per linear foot, versus 0.75 square feet. Additionally, one sign would be allowed per entrance from a public street, as opposed to one per street frontage.

Businesses within the districts would be allowed directional signs and banners, which are not covered in the existing code. Directional signs on either side of entrances and no taller than four feet and as large as eight square feet would be allowed. Banners hung from walls, polls and canopies would also be permitted with no restriction on the number of pole-hung banners. Banners affixed to walls and canopies would have a maximum allowable size of 100 square feet, and wall-hung banners could not exceed more than 15 percent of allowable signs per dealership. There would be no restriction on the number of pole-hung banners allowed, but they could be no larger than 40 square feet.

Also included in the proposal is the use of canopies to shield employees and customers from the rain and heat and two feature-vehicle showcases per dealership.

Jon Creedon, owner of Vancouver Ford located in Area 2, said car dealerships can be compared to a Wal-Mart without walls. Multiple franchises and services are located on the same property, but signage limitations make it difficult for consumers to navigate the site, he said. Creedon adds that those entering the proposed districts are there for the services located in them and will benefit from signs promoting deals and directing them where to go.

"If people can get to the services and products they need, there will be less congestion," said Creedon. "If signage were better, it could relieve adjacent businesses from the hastle."

Creedon and Babar said there are similar examples across the country of plan districts developed where a number of car dealers have congregated.

The ordinance was passed by the planning commission by a four to three vote, and when it reached the council, they raised concerns about the proposal and tabled the matter until they could learn more about the issue.

Council member Jeanne Stewart said she was concerned about creating specialized codes for certain businesses.

"My overall concern about planned districts is the question of how necessary (they are)," she said.

Zoning and land use become more difficult to understand when special needs are created, she said, leading to increased costs for the city and developers.

She also raised concerns about mitigating impacts to adjacent, unrelated businesses and setting a precedent for similar requests by other businesses.

Babar said the issue will be presented to the council again at their Jan. 9 meeting, which will be followed with a hearing at its subsequent meeting.

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