Neighbors fight gas station appeal

After being denied a request to place underground gasoline tanks within 200 feet of homes, representatives of Cefco gas stations are appealing the Zoning Board’s decision to the Board of County Commissioners.

The commercial parcel located at the northeast corner of Highway 87 and High School Boulevard is currently vacant. To make it a gas station, Cefco would need four variances to the county’s Land Development Code including allowing taller signs, underground fuel tanks closer to homes and 24-hour lighting that violates current rules.

Neighbors like Kenneth Devries say they don’t mind the land being developed, but he took serious issue with the variances to the code, especially regarding the gas tanks.

The code requires a clearance of at least 500 feet from residential properties, but the developers are requesting to cut that setback down by about 60%, putting the underground tanks uncomfortably close to Devries’ back fence.

“That is my biggest fear is that those tanks will be put in the ground. They will pollute the environment as far as the air that we breathe,” Devries said.

Gas station operations could be hazardous to health. According to multiple peer-reviewed study results provided by the neighbors, benzene, one of the chemicals in gasoline, can cause negative impacts to the health of residents through air release as well as water runoff.

The studies found that the amounts generated by typical operation of a gas station were sufficient to contribute to cancers and deteriorated environment such as polluting the water table. With the variance requested, Devries’ house and several others would be in the area of concern.

Neighbors also expressed concerns about impacts to their quality of life from the lights and noise. One neighbor described how residents in Fort Walton Beach with houses abutting a Cefco station have put tin foil up in the windows to keep the light out from the 24-hour station. 

During a public hearing in October, the neighbors shared these concerns, leading to the Zoning Board’s denial of the variances. But appeals to the County Commission are a part of the judicial process. 

Neighbor James Duval worked in law enforcement for 15 years and regularly answered calls at 24-hour gas stations, he said.

“I know the kind of activity that goes on at 24-hour service stations. A lot of it, especially at night, becomes undesirable activity you don’t want,” he said.

Duval described finding individuals dying of drug overdoses locked in the gas station’s bathrooms, thefts that led to chases through neighboring residential areas and drug dealers frequenting parking lots.

“It is just a whole bunch of bad and illicit activity that happens at night,” Duval said. “It doesn’t matter where the fuel station is. I’ve seen them put in very nice neighborhoods, and the crime still goes there.”

Neighbor Eddie Wofford also said his professional expertise makes him wary of the planned gas station. He works construction projects on Hurlburt Field, and he said there are rules in the Land Development Code to ensure public health and safety.

“You have codes, criteria and standards for any development, for any construction project, for a reason. And primarily for the health, safety and welfare of the people that are involved in it,” he said. “When you are threatening the health, safety and welfare of citizens nearby, it is very serious.”

Neighbor Len Rasmussen said his concern is not that the property is being developed but rather the nature of the proposed business. The gathered neighbors said they understand that. The problem, he said, is that there are perfectly legal uses for the property that would be less offensive and not endanger neighbors such as a restaurant, strip mall or bakery.

“It is not that we are against development,” he told a reporter. “It’s that we are against stupid development. There is no reason to put something that could potentially harm the safety and the health of the residents right there.”

Multiple calls from a reporter to the representative listed in Cefco’s application went unanswered. 

In the backup documentation provided to the board, Cefco representatives use maps to illustrate that there are homes in close proximity to two gas stations already existing on Highway 87.

But Devries pointed out that just because the rules were not followed in the past doesn’t mean they should not be followed in the present. 

In the end, the decision is up to the Board of County Commissioners. They will be hearing the appeal for the variances Dec. 12 at 6 p.m. in the boardroom in Milton at 6495 Caroline Street.

“The decision that the board has to make is do they care more about a developers’ rights than about the health and safety of the residents? That is the question they are going to have to answer,” Rasmussen said.

Neighbors Danny Pagan, Eddie Wofford, Kenneth Devries, Len Rasmussen, James Duval, “C,” Carmen Devries, Marci Samford, Rodney Samford and Jack McMillan are all in opposition to a gas station proposed near their homes.

Man on the Street

“Having a gas station is going to decrease the property value and for most people their homes are their most valuable asset.”
—Jack McMillan, neighbor

“My biggest opposition to this gas station being put here is the fact that it even requires a variance to begin with. It requires four variances to the Land Development Code that we have. That code is put there for a reason.”

–Eddie Wofford, background in construction

 “It’s not about we just don’t want this in our backyard. It’s that they could have put any number of projects there, but why a gas station? They need all these variances to put a gas station in where there is really no compelling need for it. There are competing businesses within a mile in either direction.”

—Len Rasmussen, neighbor

“I’ve responded to thefts at 24-hour gas stations in which the thief attempts to get away by running through neighborhoods, going in people’s backyards and hiding and actually breaking into people’s house to get away from the law.”

—James Duval, 15 years in law enforcement

“Over 98% of the neighborhoods around here are active duty or retired military. Along with the safety issues, you have the lighting and the noise. Our active duty already give enough as it is. If they are coming home all hours of night, they are not getting the rest that they could need.”

–Marcie Samford, neighbor

“The biggest variance they are requesting is the distance from the 20,000 gallons of fuel that they want to put in the ground near my house…The tanks that they are proposing to put in the ground are 200 feet from my back fence.”

–Kenneth Devries, neighbor

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