Chatham County

Their Pittsboro gas station was rejected. Now they're going to court to fight for it.

A developer wants to put a new gas station on this property at 165 East St., near downtown Pittsboro.
A developer wants to put a new gas station on this property at 165 East St., near downtown Pittsboro.

The developers of a proposed gas station near downtown Pittsboro have sued the town and the town board, claiming their plan was improperly rejected during an April board meeting.

Eagles Enterprises filed the lawsuit May 23 over its plan to put a new gas station on a former Ford dealership lot at 165 East St.

The town board held a closed session Monday night to discuss a pending lawsuit with Town Attorney Paul Messick. No details were released. Court records show the Eagles lawsuit to be the only pending case against the town or the Board of Commissioners.

The Eagles project has been controversial in Pittsboro because of its proximity to the historic courthouse at the center of downtown.

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Eagles, which initially filed its site plan for approval on Oct. 27, 2017, contends that it met all of the town's rules. The property is zoned C-2 (Highway Commercial), which allows gas stations.

The site plan went through the town's planning review process and received a recommendation for approval.

Messick had advised the Planning Board in a March 19 memo that approving "site plans under existing ordinances was an administrative decision and neither it nor the Board of Commissioners have any other authority than to comply with the specific terms of the ordinance."

The first chance to approve

The commissioners' first opportunity to grant Eagles an approval was April 9. They put off their decision for two weeks. Instead of approving the site plan April 23, the board found a technical error in the application and used it to reject the gas station.

The minor error was the mislabeling of a pair of parking spaces in the plan. The overall number of parking spaces required, 34, for the gas station, convenience store, car wash and restaurant was met.

Commissioner John Bonitz made the motion to reject the plan, and it received a unanimous vote. But later the board had to come back and redo the rejection when it was discovered Bonitz made an error in stating his original motion.

The lawsuit contends there was prejudice against the project by the board, citing a meeting between Mayor Cindy Perry and the developers where she is reported to have said "the application would never be approved because the town did not want the uses proposed on the property."

Bonitz said he did not believe this gas station was needed in downtown before making his motion to reject it.

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Complicating matters, commissioners were working on a protective overlay district for downtown at the same time. Some saw it as a way to block the gas station. The new protections were adopted Monday, but they do not apply to the proposed Eagles station because it already was in the planning process.

The next step

The developers are trying to gain approval of the project on two fronts.

LeAnn Brown, Eagles' attorney, warned the town board April 9 that the developers were within their right to sue if the project was rejected.

Eagles had made it through the town's first three approval steps, which are submitting the application and initial plan, review by town staff, and then the Planning Board makes its recommendation. From there, the commissioners' options are limited. State law prevents towns from arbitrarily denying approval of projects that otherwise meet their zoning requirements. Commissioners rejected it anyway two weeks later.

Following the rejection April 23, Eagles corrected the error on the plan and resubmitted it to the Planning Department. It now is being reviewed again with the minor correction being made. It could be back before the commissioners in August.

Eagles' lawsuit is asking for the board's rejection to be overturned and for attorney fees. Eagles also reserves the right to seek economic damages from the town, according to the lawsuit.