Salvaging business: Land use dispute tests mettle of businessman
When Chuck Myers made plans to expand his metal business to include salvage storage near the Fifth Street Bridge in Grand Junction, he didn’t count on a long-term comprehensive plan that envisions the area as a more enticing entry to the south side of downtown. But that’s what’s happened.
Myers believes city government is throwing up unnecessary roadblocks that hinder his ability to expand Grand Junction Metal Movers and support his family.
City planners believe they’re following directions from a long-range plan developed from public comments gathered over several years. It’s a classic case of a business owner trying to fight city hall, which in turn points to the community as ultimately deciding on development as the city strives to become the most livable city west of the Continental Divide.
“I agree with the need for a comprehensive plan,” says Myers, who moved from the Front Range to establish a Grand Junction operation for a metal business headquartered in Littleton.
Myers is in the process of moving his operation from a parcel northwest of 24 and G roads to a location on South Sixth Street near the railroad tracks. He says he’s paid rent on both properties for five months while he waits for a decision from the Grand Junction Planning Commission.
When Myers took his case before the commission in March, he says public testimony favored his proposal. Lois Dunn, a real estate professional and wife of City Councilman Sam Susuras, was among those who testified. Dunn shared some of her comments in an e-mail to the Business Times.
“The requirements are excessive,” Dunn wrote. “The tenant can only spend so much time and money on this endeavor. For his business, he needs to be in a like area for his operation where vehicles can be delivered and transported (by rail). The location must be where customers can find him … . Salvage should not be a bad word. It is part of the business cycle of vehicles.”
Current zoning allows Myers to expand storage of salvage materials if he receives a special permit for the expansion, says Tim Moore, director of public works and planning for the city.
Myers has applied for the permit, and signs on his property indicate the permit is under consideration. But if the permit is approved, there’s no assurance as to how long Myers can operate there in light of the city’s comprehensive plan.
“That’s the vision the comp plan had,” Moore says, alluding to the long-term plan for light commercial business and residential space in the area near the viaduct. “It’s more of a vision.”
The vision actually began in the 1980s, when the city purchased the Jarvis Property west of the Fifth Street Bridge, the Dunn Salvage business (partly owned by Lois Dunn), and part of the Van Gundy salvage business. The city hauled off old vehicles stacked along the riverfront and near the Fifth Street entryway to downtown. The effort happened in part because the federal government financed a Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) project. Dirt tailings from uranium mines were deemed too radioactive for public safety, and the feds helped pay for hauling off the tailings and the old cars that sat on top of them.
But it can be difficult for a business to make long-term plans based on a vision that might or might not develop into reality. Moore says the city might approve a special permit that expires in five years. Myers says he doesn’t want to make a large investment if he can’t operate beyond 2016.
“I don’t know why they’re so hell bent on stopping it,” Myers says. “To me, it’s an abuse of their power.”
Moore says some issues are in Meyers’ court. If the business comes up with a practical way to screen salvage from public view, the planning commission could be more amenable to a long-term permit, Moore says. But there are a couple of hitches to that concept. For one, the Colorado Department of Transportation tells the city the state can’t add a fence along the top of the viaduct because high winds would hit the fence and add too much pressure to the viaduct. Myers suggested he could to build a lean-to or other structure on his property below the viaduct to shield salvage from the view of motorists driving over the viaduct.
Myers says he became frustrated when members of the planning department and planning commission wouldn’t commit to whether or not such ground-level screening would be adequate.
“They won’t give a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Myers says of his proposal for a lean-to. He says it’s not practical for him to spend money on a lean-to only to discover it’s not adequate for the planning commission. “They don’t care about what it costs,” he says. “It’s not their money.”
Moore says he received a different story from the commission — that they instructed Myers to develop a plan for screening, but not actually build the structure. “We still haven’t heard a thing,” Moore said in an April 14 interview.
However the decision shakes out, Myers worries that the business’s days could be numbered because of the potential for changing zoning codes in the area. He says the economic impact of the indecision has led him to lay off more than half his local staff, leaving him with five employees. If allowed to expand his operation, Myers estimates he could hire back workers and expand the staff to at least 18 people. Most would earn more than average national and local salaries.
He says employees spend money such areas such as downtown Grand Junction, which Myers says already serves demand for a mixed use of retail, office space and residential housing. “I got a $160 pair of boots from the shoe guy,” he says, citing an example of downtown shopping.
Myers also believes in being a good corporate citizen. He says he delivers food to children in need every week, participating in the Backpacks for Kids program. He helps the Habitat for Humanity housing program for families in search of affordable homes. He’s donated equipment and labor to help elderly people with projects. “I personally feel we should help out.”
Meanwhile, a separate zoning battle continues to play out in an area east of downtown Grand Junction.
Brady Trucking wants to expand its operation on two parcels along the north bank of the Colorado River and east of the proposed Las Colonias Park property. The city annexed the Brady property and gave the green light for the project. The Grand Junction City Council voted 4-2 in September 2008 to approve light industrial and industrial-office zoning for the parcels.
A group opposed to that zoning subsequently circulated a petition calling for the council to either repeal its decision or put the issue to city voters. That petition was initially deemed sufficient. But a protest challenged the validity of the petition, and 18 signatures were disqualified, making the petition 14 signatures short of the required 1,860.
A district court judge upheld that ruling, but the Colorado Court of Appeals overturned the district court ruling. The latest ruling has been appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.
The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce sided with Brady Trucking, opposed to the concept of local citizens petitioning to change zoning rules.
The chamber hasn’t yet weighed in on the situation involving Grand Junction Metal Movers. “We are concerned about the issue,” says Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. “People have mixed feelings about salvage yards. But if you don’t have them, you can have things end up in the desert.”
In the meantime, Myers and the city planning commission each wait for the other to make the next move.
Myers says he would like assurances he can operate the salvage business for many years if the city grants him a special permit for the property. “They’re supposed to help us and work for us,” he says.
Says Moore: “We’ll process it as expeditiously as we can.”