CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite complaints that a 24-hour convenience store would ruin the neighborhood, members of the Municipal Planning Commission approved requests Wednesday to rezone property and close a short street off Bigley Avenue.
But planning commissioners said the developers -- Jim and George Smith of O.V. Smith & Sons -- should have met first with neighbors, and requested they do so before City Council's Planning Committee takes up the issue later this month.
Mayor Danny Jones said his administration supports the project, possibly a Sheetz gas station and convenience store, and tried to answer concerns raised by about a dozen neighbors of the property.
Jim Smith, president of O.V. Smith & Sons of Big Chimney, previously told the Gazette he hopes to build a convenience store on property he owns and hopes to buy along Bigley Avenue near Alethia Street.
Smith bought the former Taft Elementary School in 2001 and has an option to buy the former Wesley United Methodist Church and four adjacent homes on the east side of Alethia.
If he can rezone the church properties from single-family residential (R-4) to commercial (C-8) and close Alethia between Bigley and O'Dell Avenue, he'll have a 2-acre site -- enough for a large-scale convenience store and parking lot.
Dave Alvis, Smith's consultant, told the commission much of the neighborhood is already zoned C-8, even C-10, and the rezoning would increase property values.
If the street were closed, all sewers and other underground utilities would remain, Alvis said. "The only thing that would be lost is vehicle access."
Jerri Kaufman and her brother, Jeff Ehman, said they support the project. They own property across Bigley from the school.
"That neighborhood has gone downhill in recent years," Kaufman said. "The school and closed church have been underutilized properties. They have provided no value to the city."
But most in the audience were against the project. Webb Hunt, who owns several sites nearby, said he started a leaflet and petition campaign last week. He submitted a petition with 75 signatures.
"It's a residential neighborhood," Hunt said. "I'm not in favor of a convenience store bumping up against my property. It's a sound issue. It's a safety issue."
Established stores nearby already offer similar products, he said. "I'm not sure this is an addition to the neighborhood so much as a redistribution of the services."
And Von Ehman, cousin of Kaufman and Jeff Ehman, said nighttime noise and light would bother his mom, who lives across the street. "I'm not against progress. This is a very quiet and peaceful neighborhood. Personally I'd prefer an office park or doctor's office, something that's not open 24 hours a day."
Commissioner and City Council member Mary Jean Davis said the use of the site -- whether a convenience store or something else -- was not at issue Wednesday, only the rezoning and street closing. But she told Alvis and the Smiths that developers of similar projects typically meet with neighbors in advance to try to work out potential conflicts.
"I think our request would be to meet with the neighbors," Davis said. "Mr. Smith, that would be my request. It would be the neighborly thing to do."
Jones said he doesn't often come to commission meetings. "When I do, it's because I really want something.
"All Sheetz' are open 24 hours a day," Jones said. "I wouldn't want one of those [beside me], but a doctor's office -- that's not going to happen." Sheetz stores typically have a deep setback from the street and neighbors, he said. "It might help your situation. The lights might deter crime."
Alvis said city building codes restrict lighting in a residential neighborhood. "We would commit to putting a 6-foot privacy fence on the northern end of the property. These are minor issues. We'll work with the neighborhood as much as humanly possible to resolve these issues. If the neighbors want to meet, we could sit down after this meeting. Or we could meet in the neighborhood."
After sitting silently for most of the meeting, Jim Smith defended his proposal. "I've been in the building business 58 years. I've never had a problem with my properties. I'm not here to hurt anybody."
He downplayed talk of a Sheetz store, first mentioned by Jones. "As for a Sheetz, I don't have anything concrete. I talked to them once. They said the property wasn't big enough. That was two years ago. I don't have any promise they would be interested at this time."
After the meeting, Smith said he approached Jones some time ago, seeking his support. I said it was a possibility we could bring in someone like Sheetz."
George Smith said the plans could change. "What we're hearing from the meeting is they want a drugstore. They may need that more than a convenience store."
Council's Planning Committee will take up the zoning change and street closing requests at 7 p.m. Sept. 24 in the conference room of the City Service Center in the McFarland Street parking garage building.
City Council will have the final say on the two requests.
Reach Jim Balow at ba...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.