Wal-Mart’s roll out of gas stations in New England ran into deep water in the seacoast town of Seabrook, New Hampshire on March 26th. A citizens group called the Seabrook Committee for Environmental Protection organized local residents to turn out against the Sam’s Club project, which had been granted a variance for the 12 pump facility in December, but the variance was appealed. The Wal-Mart proposal needed a zoning variance because their store is a non-conforming use. The Sam’s Club was built before the zone was converted into an industrial zone, in which gas stations are not permitted. Sam’s lawyer tried to argue that the project did not need a variance, that adding a gas stations was just a “natural expansion” of an existing use. Residents argued that the project could threaten the local aquifer in a town where water quality is already a touchy subject. Sam’s also introduced a letter from a New Hampshire real estate appraiser who said “new traffic should be negligible”, yet the company was putting 60,000 gallons of underground storage tanks on the lot. Sam’s produced no traffic study, and could not guarantee that human error in a tanker delivery would not endanger the water supply. Sam’s also tried to argue that it would suffer “unnecessary hardship” without the gas station, because its parking lot was “excessive for the facility’s space.” I testified at the request of local residents, that there were already 10 gas stations within 2 miles of this site, and that the town should have “zero tolerance” for placing gas stations in a zone near water supply where they were not permitted as of right. I also noted that of the 14 Sam’s Clubs in New England, none of them have gas stations. After two hours of hearings, the ZBA voted 5-0 not to allow the Sam’s Club variance, and not to allow the expansion of a nonconforming use.
A couple of interesting side notes: 1) No one from Sam’s Club bothered to come to the hearing. 2) The real estate appraiser presented a 7 page study designed to show that gas stations have “no potential diminution in value” to surrounding properties. He submitted a “paired data analysis” that was supposed to “measure adjustments to the sales prices or rents of comparable properties”, but instead looked at 3 apartment buildings in two New Hampshire communities and concluded that rents for all three properties in each community “show consistent prices for physically similar properties, despite their proximity to neighboring gas station properties.” What the study did not examine was how property rents changed before and after the arrival of a gas station compared to the other paired properties. Citizens fighting sprawl should scout around to find an appraiser who would submit a study showing how residential property is harmed by big box retailers or gas stations. Seabrook also has a zoning law that requires gas stations to be “at least 1,000 feet from existing stations.”