Bugged by the bureaucracy

Volkswagen dealer Mark Abouzeid thought the city liked his expansion project—until the Planning Commission shot it down

WHAT NEXT?<br>Mark and Amy Abouzeid have spent nearly two years trying to get city approval to expand their Volkswagen dealership onto the lot formerly occupied by the Foster’s Freeze (seen in background). Opponents say it’s the wrong use of the site.

Mark and Amy Abouzeid have spent nearly two years trying to get city approval to expand their Volkswagen dealership onto the lot formerly occupied by the Foster’s Freeze (seen in background). Opponents say it’s the wrong use of the site.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

On to the council:
Mark Abouzeid’s appeal of the Chico Planning Commission’s negative recommendation of his VW sales-lot expansion plans comes before the City Council at its next meeting, on Tuesday, Oct. 21.

Mark Abouzeid sat in his office at Chico Volkswagen sifting through city invoices, bank statements, petitions and piles of paperwork as he calculated how much time, energy and, especially, money he has spent trying to expand his car dealership. He figured he was pushing $150,000 by now.

In retrospect, he said, he might not have bothered if he had known the obstacles he would face.

He already owns the land, and his architectural plans have been rendered and are framed, hanging on the wall inside his showroom. But Abouzeid and his wife, Amy, have become ensnared in a land-use thicket since he began meeting with city officials nearly two years ago in preparation for buying the vacant land across the street from his business, which is located at the corner of Main and West Ninth streets.

On its west side, Chico Volkswagen borders Broadway. Across the street is an empty lot best known as the former site of a Foster’s Freeze. The lot extends south over Little Chico Creek. Altogether, it’s 1.5 acres in size.

When Abouzeid was eyeing the property, the only other potential buyer was interested in the site for a drive-through Taco Bell. Abouzeid didn’t want a late-night business across from his sales lot, so he approached city staff and was pretty much given a green light to buy the property.

Abouzeid’s idea was to sell cars off the northern lot and use the land south of the creek for employee parking. His designs call for trees and other landscaping, canopies similar to those on the existing Volkswagen building, and solar panels.

By Sept. 4, when his application for a general-plan amendment and rezone—from Downtown to Community Commercial for the land north of the creek—reached the Chico Planning Commission for review, the new Southwest Chico Neighborhood Plan had emerged. It calls for a mixed-use “gateway” into the neighborhood at that site, and envisions cafés and other small businesses bordering the creek, not an auto-sales lot.

City staff supported Abouzeid’s project, as did several neighboring business owners. But opponents—including the Barber Neighborhood Association, whose members live south of the creek—successfully argued that it was out of keeping with the goals of the neighborhood plan and the city’s general plan. The commission voted 4-2 not to recommend its adoption.

The City Council is scheduled make a decision on the matter at its Tuesday, Oct. 21, meeting. In the interim, on Oct. 2, the commission gave its support to the neighborhood plan, with its call for a “gateway” at Ninth and Broadway. The council is tentatively scheduled to review it on Nov. 18.

“It’s crazy,” Abouzeid said, using a calculator to add up his city invoices as he re-hashed his last two years. “That’s the part that just kills me. How are we encouraging local businesses with this behavior?”

Abouzeid said he has paid a hefty $6,400 monthly mortgage payment since buying the property in January 2007, not to mention property taxes and insurance. He has also paid the city $18,468 as part of his application process.

Chico Volkswagen is located on the site of the former Volpato Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, which had been there since 1920. Currently Chico Volkswagen has 32 employees with an annual payroll of approximately $1.8 million. With the proposed expansion, the company planned to increase its workforce by seven to 10 people.

Even though auto sales have decreased nationally, they are still Chico’s second-largest industry for sales-tax generation. Abouzeid said the additional 68 spaces for retail display would increase his sales from 40 per month to about 74.

“It’s totally frustrating,” Abouzeid continued. “It seems like with the budget challenges that are there for everybody, that there would be a better commonality between the Planning Commission and the city.

“The worst part of this is that if I had known it was going to take what it has done to our family and my life, I would have never done this. It would be a Taco Bell.”

Abouzeid and his wife say they met with city officials twice before purchasing the property, starting in November 2006. “Give us 25 feet [along the creek for a bicycle path] and get rid of the billboards” was the city’s only request, Abouzeid said. So he bought the property.

Then he visited neighbors within a 500-foot radius to see how they felt about his expansion. He did not find anyone who opposed it, and now has more than 180 names on a petition in favor of expansion.

The northern portion of the site, however, is not zoned for auto sales in the city’s current general plan, explained Principal Planner Mark Wolfe. “It’s an unusual zoning district,” he said, noting that a portion of the property allows for only limited commercial use, such as a retail store, including auto parts, bars and restaurants. The larger portion of the northern site allows for both residential and commercial activities, including pharmacies, restaurants, retail stores and multi-family housing.

Despite that, he said, city staff has recommended the council adopt Abouzeid’s proposal because “in our view the land-use change would be appropriate.”

Adam Fedeli, a member of the Barber Neighborhood Association, said the site serves as a transition between commercial and residential use. While he acknowledges it is not the association’s place to determine what is built there, he said the expansion was not compatible with the neighborhood or the general plan.

“We support development of that property in compliance with the existing zoning,” Fedeli said. “Everyone agrees it looks like garbage now. … The issue is not what it looks like right now. The issue is the future, and [how] the property is developed.

“This is not personal in any way… [Abouzeid] is a neighbor,” he continued. “It’s more about the zoning, the plan and the future.”

Abouzeid said he believes some people would like him to build a multi-level building with both retail and residential occupancy, a café or a park. He’s shocked, he said, that other people seem to believe they have a right to dictate what he builds on his own property.

Planning Commissioner Susan Minasian cast the sole dissenting vote against the neighborhood plan. “I have a problem with neighborhood plans because they give too much power to those who do not own the property in question,” she said.

Minasian was also one of two commissioners to vote in favor of Abouzeid’s expansion proposal. She said “the economic times for California and in particular the city of Chico require an increase in the health of our businesses.”

The concept of a “gateway” to the neighborhood isn’t so bad, she added, “but what if nobody wants to build all that?”

Commissioner Mary Brownell said she voted against the expansion because it doesn’t follow the general plan, noting that Abouzeid’s designs for the property do not protect the creek according to code. Abouzeid allowed access to the creek on only one side, she explained. She, like members of the Barber Neighborhood Association, wants to see a greenway emerge along the creek, as well as more housing and small businesses.

“Every time we turn around, we are up against things from the city slowing us down,” Amy Abouzeid said. “It [has been] difficult as a small-business owner—getting through the hoops and making it.”

Her husband said he hopes the city will find his proposal sufficient and allow him to expand his business. Abouzeid can’t sell the expansion property in this economy and says that what he builds must be economically viable. If he can’t expand his business, he may just turn the land into an auto-parts store.

“The city doesn’t have a very good ‘how to,’ or flow chart, on how to get something done,” he said. “When you have something go wrong with your car, you open up a book to fix it. … You go through a trouble-shooting chart.

“It’s well above frustration for me now. It’s brutal. The city is still saying to us that [they] are trying to help, but it’s painful.”