Controversial service station project undergoes a redesign

Controversial plans to overhaul an aging Leucadia service station near Interstate 5 no longer include an automated car wash, but the size of the proposed mini-market remains unresolved.

After hours of debate on Feb. 1, the Encinitas Planning Commission concluded that it couldn't settle the issue as the project's developers wanted and instead would need the City Council to step in.

That's because of confusion regarding a pending change to the city's building codes. A code revision, which the council approved last summer and is now undergoing state Coastal Commission review, appears to be very unclear and ought to be reworded, commissioners said.

The new code section defines mini-markets as being retail establishments containing "less than 2,000 square feet of gross floor area, or 15 percent of total gross floor area if ancillary to a service station, whichever is less." Commissioners said it was the second part of that phrase that was troubling, saying it put the city in the position of having to weigh in on a case-by-case basis on whether bathrooms, hallways or even utility room sinks areas should be included in a proposed mini-market's square footage calculation.

"I think you have general agreement here that we need to get a better definition," Commissioner Bruce Ehlers said before the commission directed city planners to do more research and asked the City Council to revisit the issue.

The commission's decision to essentially not to make a decision Feb. 1 left the service station developers and their attorney frustrated.

"We have no idea how big to make it (given this decision)," attorney Marco Gonzalez told the commissioners, later adding that the decision lacked "clarity" and will leave the project plans in limbo for months.

Gonzalez represents the Gupta family, which has owned the Shell station on the southeast corner of Orpheus Avenue and Leucadia Boulevard for about two decades. The family's initial redevelopment plans for the property called for more gas station pumps, an upscale marketplace and, most controversial of all, an automated car wash.

The service station is just north of many homes on Orpheus Avenue and neighboring residents strongly objected to the car wash proposal, saying that the blow dryers would be so loud it would be like living near an airport. After five meetings on the development plans, the planning commissioners agreed that the project wasn't compatible with the neighborhood and unanimously voted to deny it the permits it needed to proceed.

The Guptas appealed that decision to the City Council, and the council denied their appeal in April 2016.

In the months since, the project has been redesigned. In the new version, the car wash and additional gas pump area have been eliminated, but the building that would contain the market remains the same size as previously proposed.

The city's size limit on mini-markets was of concern to the service station's owners because they're proposing to build a 3,038-square-foot structure, but contend that the bathrooms, hallway, walk-in cooler, office and cash register region shouldn't be counted as part of the mini-market's square footage, rather as part of the overall service station area.

If all of those are eliminated from the calculation, then the mini-market area would be 1,688 square feet.

— Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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