For the record: City manager discusses Kwik Star project on College Drive, Decorah

(For the record is the second in a series of informational articles intended to help clarify some of the burning issues currently facing the City of Decorah.)
In this edition, Decorah City Manager Travis Goedken helps clarify and define the position of the City of Decorah and the role of its associated councils, boards 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 in the third Kwik Star project?

Travis Goedken: “The third Kwik Star idea predates my arrival here [in September 2021], from when this idea first popped up. As with anything else in the town of Decorah, there are people who don’t like it and people who are happy with it.
With Kwik Star, City Council and the Decorah Planning and Zoning Commission both have well-defined rules they can use to base or weigh their approval of a site plan. These rules are specified in the city codes. So very early on when we started hearing public opposition to 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 “…these are all things the city council cannot consider as part of site plan approval.
Let me put it in simpler terms. It would 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 script and insert two local businesses, you can see where that changes the conversation as opposed to one local business and one private business.

Is the controversy specifically about a third Kwik Star, or the proposed location for the Kwik Star?

TG: “I think there’s a combination of the two, from the public comments we’ve heard: ‘We don’t need a third Kwik Star.’ Those are comments the board can’t Also, the controversy is over the square footage and the feeling that the proposed space could be put to better use. Again, that’s not for council to determine, except through the zoning process. But if the idea has already met the zoning requirements and has been deemed acceptable, that is what the city, planning and zoning can determine based on.

So, in simplified terms, that would be like saying, “I’m going to fence my garden at my house, and I want to have XYZ in the garden, and if my fence and what’s in my garden aren’t I’m infringing no city ordinance, the city can’t tell me what I can and can’t do in my yard. The city can’t come into my yard and tell me to take my trampoline down because my neighbor thinks it’s an eyesore.

TG: “Right. If all ordinances are followed and there are no rules against it, you have every right to do whatever you want with your property. It is a private transaction between two parties. If the public, or the city council, or the city staff think there’s a better use of that area, it’s not up to those people to determine that. It’s between the current owner and the proposed buyer. The municipal council must make its 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 states the area is not zoned for more gas stations?

TG: “Per Decorah Municipal Code 17.08.300, a gas station is defined as a structure designed or used for the retail and/or wholesale or supply of fuels, lubricants, air, water, washing and polishing services and other goods or accessories for motor vehicles and including the customary space and facilities for the installation of such goods or accessories on or in such vehicles, but at excluding space or facilities for storage, painting, major repairs, refinishing, bodywork or other major motor vehicle maintenance.
When you read this definition and visualize what it describes, it is a gas station. This refers to full-service “ding ding” stations.
This section of the code was last discussed in 1993. I’m not saying the gas station definition was updated in 1993, but the last time it was looked at and touched on was in 1993. So that’s when everyone started hearing the argument that, “Okay, if that’s how we define a gas station, what Casey’s has is not a gas station, because the definition refers to nothing about food, nothing about other goods for sale, nothing. These are only fuels, lubricants, air, water, washing/polishing services and other motor vehicle accessories. And so, it has nothing to do with the convenience side.
But if I go to the zoning district, C-2, chapter 17.92, the statement that starts with this is “The C-2 district is intended to augment the C-3 central business district by accommodating convenience and service centers convenience store offering limited commercial services, personal and professional services.As far as the definition of “neighborhood convenience store” is concerned—bearing in mind that this definition dates from 1993—it is a retail business. But “neighborhood convenience stores” are also licensed there to show, sell, service and repair automobiles; what does that mean to you? When they hear about auto repairs, the Most people think of body shops or service centers. When they hear about auto shows and sales, they may think of a car dealership. The ordinance doesn’t define any of those things, and they don’t have not been revised or defined since 1993.
So if you have a car service, what is a car service? Does he buy gas? Does he buy a liter of oil? We haven’t defined it. Since our city ordinance does not define it, the definition is very broad.
In late 2017, in 2018, Casey’s was given permission to demolish its building and construct a brand new building. Documents, including Planning and Zoning and City Council Approved Site Plan Review, state that Zoning District C-2 is compliant: yes.
So, convenience stores apparently weren’t a public issue or concern of this zoning district just a few years ago and we must adhere to the same requirements for all applicants. We can’t change the rules now and say, “Auto service, sales and retail, whoever a convenience store is, it can’t fit in the C2 neighborhood.” We can’t do that. Because nothing has changed from the same criteria that Casey’s had to meet in 2017.”

What about Decorah Mart and Casey’s on College Drive being “acquired” as a permitted primary use?

TG: “The term ‘grandpa’ has been used loosely and quickly lately in the Kwik Star/Casey’s/Decorah Mart discussion. Grandfathering would mean they are not acceptable uses. Nobody said anything about it. The determination that a business is no longer an acceptable primary permitted use shall be a decision of the Zoning Administrator or Board of Adjustment.
If so, if Casey’s or Kwik Star had been grandfathered since 1993, when the code was last hit, 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 intention of rebuilding it, the grandfather clause would have been canceled. They would not have been allowed to improve and grow.
It has never been determined that Kwik Star was ever allowed to be there. This is how staff and the planning and zoning committee were able to determine that yes, it is an authorized primary use. And we have gone through all the required steps. To summarize, Decorah Mart, Casey’s and the proposed Kwik Star are the top three permitted uses in C-2 areas.

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