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Dealers want to put the brakes on new rules for used car lots in Hagerstown

March 09, 2013|By HOLLY SHOK | holly.shok@herald-mail.com
  • Owner of Salem Auto Exchange Bill Feuerstein speaks out against the City of Hagerstown's zoning rules for small car dealerships.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Following an outcry from concerned citizens involved in the used car business, the Hagerstown City Council at its Tuesday meeting will reconsider the portion of an amendment to the city’s Land Management Code that cites car lots on properties of fewer than 40,000 square feet as nonconforming.

The amendment, which went into effect Oct. 25, requires new automobile sales facilities to occupy that much land. Existing facilities on fewer than 40,000 square feet can continue to operate if they don’t cease operation for two or more years, according to a Feb. 26 memo from Planning Director Kathleen Maher and Stephen Bockmiller, development planner and zoning administrator, to city Administrator Bruce Zimmerman regarding the change. 

Bill Feuerstein, who has owned Salem Avenue Auto Exchange and Repair for 19 years, was one of those who spoke at the Feb. 26 city council meeting, saying he feared for the future of his business.

Feuerstein has a rare form of cancer. And the owner of the independent used car lot in Hagerstown said he is concerned that should his health deteriorate and force him to temporarily close the business, that closure could be permanent unless he is ready to resume operations in less than two years.

In addition, his lot is about 300 square feet short of the required 40,000 feet.

“Now, what they’re telling me (is) they could be taking my livelihood away from me — period,” he said.

Maher said in an email that further discussion of the item has been scheduled on the city council’s Tuesday agenda and will focus on whether to amend the regulations affecting the nonconforming lots. Should the council wish the change to be made, two public hearings — one of the planning commission and one of the mayor and council members — would result.

The community members who turned up to voice concerns about the amendment at the Feb. 26 council meeting criticized the city’s communication regarding the change, noting that a May 30 newspaper ad announcing a public review meeting did not specifically mention car lots.

In the Feb. 26 memo, Maher and Bockmiller wrote, “All state and local requirements for public notice for the changes to the Land Management Code were met in the review and approval of the Land Management Code overhaul.”

The memo goes on to say: “In fact, public interest was so low after following notice requirements, staff worked with our public information staff to create outreach opportunities to spread the word about the pending package of amendments, which, to one degree or another, had the potential to impact all properties in the city.”

“Given the comprehensive nature of the changes, and the volume of changes, individual property owner notice was neither required by law, nor would it have been practical,” according to the memo.

That same memo notes that eight lots were found to be nonconforming under the city’s two-year comprehensive update of Land Management Code. One more was named later, Bockmiller said.

“With the adopted changes, any existing car lots that are below 40,000 square feet in land area are ‘nonconforming uses’ or ‘grandfathered uses.’ That status means they can continue forever with their operations, as long as they do not cease operating for a period of two years,” Maher wrote in an email. “If they stopped operating and put in a conforming use — something permitted in the Land Management Code — then they would not be able to put a car lot back on the property in the future.”

One of the reasons the memo lists for adopting the change is the contribution automobile sales facilities on small sites make to the “marginal reuse of properties often best suited for redevelopment.”

The memo also cites excessive inventory being “squeezed” onto properties, which it said compromises off-street customer parking and on-site vehicle circulation.

It also lists traffic hazards resulting from cars backing in and out of sites where inventory vehicles cause obstruction of view, inventory situated on sidewalks and in the street right-of-way.

The memo notes that seven of the eight nonconforming sites are adjacent to residential areas and can be viewed from homes, and most current sites of fewer than 40,000 square feet are on major entry corridors to the city.

“A car lot can’t be detrimental to downtown Hagerstown because if we don’t keep a car lot looking great, people aren’t going to come into it,” Feuerstein said.

In mandating the square footage for future facilities, the provision would prevent the “further erosion” of the appearance of major travel routes, the memo said.

The reuse of three additional sites, which did not appear to have operating car sales on the property at the time the amendment was approved, was prohibited, according to the memo. Bockmiller wrote in an email that the list had been reduced to two sites after one property was deemed nonconforming.

“This survey of existing lots is a cursory survey, and may not be all-inclusive,” Bockmiller said.

Feuerstein, a former director of the Used Car Dealers Association for Maryland and Delaware, said state regulations mandate used car facilities must have 10 cars for sale on a lot, an office building and a phone to be in operation.

“So what rules do we have to follow?” he said. “There’s a lot of people that it could affect.”

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Small used car lots

These nine nonconforming used car lots in Hagerstown are permitted to continue operation as long as they don’t cease operation for two or more years:

  • City Cars, .47 acres, 340 Dual Highway
  • Classic Cars, .24 acres, 505 S. Burhans Blvd.
  • Diamond Motor Cars, .23 acres, 201 Frederick St.
  • Elite Auto Sales, .49 acres, 227 Frederick St.
  • Halfway Motors, .22 acres, 1 E. Wilson Blvd.
  • Prime Autos, .23 acres, 900 N. Burhans Blvd.
  • SMH Auto, .32 acres, 1045 Virginia Ave.
  • Salem Avenue Auto Exchange and Repair, .81 acres, 1433 Salem Ave.
  • Sam’s Used Cars, .46 acres, 285 Frederick St.

These two sites are prohibited from reuse as a used car facility in Hagerstown as they had no operating car sales at the time of the amendment:

  • United Discount Auto Sales, .52 acres, 896 Pennsylvania Ave.
  • Unger Property; .36 acres, 354 E. Washington St.
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