As he drove last month to Pecos Community Center for the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee’s consideration of the QuikTrip gas station plan for 40th Street and Cottonwood Way, Derrick Johnson had a thought that turned quickly into alarm.
“I was thinking it would be nice if I could cut out back to save some time. Then I realized, ‘wait, there is no way out back,” said Johnson, a resident of the Foothills Paseo II community that is the focal point of the controversy around the proposed gas station.
It wasn’t that Johnson didn’t know how to get in and out of the community he’s lived in almost since it was built nearly 20 years ago.
What alarmed him — and now has the attention of Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and all three lawmakers from Legislative District 18 — is the multi-pronged danger posed by a gas station at the mouth of the only way in and out for 185 homes.
It’s a powder keg — literally — in more ways than one, Johnson fears.
He ought to know.
He’s a captain in the Phoenix Fire Department with 40 years of firefighting under his belt.
Though he is speaking for himself as a Foothills Paseo resident and not representing the Phoenix Fire Department, Johnson is one of many Foothills Paseo residents who are concerned about the QuikTrip plan,
As the city Planning Department continues to review its site plan, residents are hoping city officials can force the property owner to abandon the gas station plan and build one of more than 30 other types of businesses allowed by the site’s C-2 zoning.
Like other opponents, Johnson is neither against QuikTrip as a company nor against a business on the site.
“No one moved here thinking it was going to be a piece of dirt forever,” he said.
“And a QuikTrip can be someplace else,” he added. “Not having it there is not going to affect QuikTrip one bit. They’re not going to move out of Arizona in protest.”
A National Fire Protection Association report found that between 2004 and 2008, 5,020 fires occurred at gas stations across the country annually, resulting in two deaths, 48 injuries and $20 million in property loss.
With approximately 117,000 gas stations in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that means a fire has been recorded for every 13 stations.
Fires aren’t the only potential problem.
Johnson said vapors from a gasoline spill could pose an even greater danger to residents — and make an evacuation virtually impossible because of the way rescue crews establish perimeters around a spill.
Residents met recently with state Sen. Sean Bowie and Rep. Jennifer Jermaine to discuss their concerns. Jermaine also got Gallego to send a representative.
City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who did not attend, asked Timothy Gammage Sr., deputy chief of the Fire Department’s South Division, to attend and look into the residents’ concerns.
“My focus is making sure that I’m connecting the residents to the proper agencies and levels of government to address their concerns,” said Jermaine, who, according to residents, was the first legislator to reach out to them after hearing about their concerns and alerted Gallego’s office to them as well.
“This sounds like it is more than a simple zoning issue,” the freshman Chandler lawmaker said. “There is a public safety concern for the neighborhood, surrounding medical facilities and transit center.”
That transit center is a park-and-ride lot at 40th and Pecos Road that is located less than 300 yards south of the QuikTrip site.
Annie DeGraw, press secretary for the mayor, told AFN: “We have asked residents to reach out to Councilman DiCiccio’s office, as the proposed construction project is in his district. We will continue to watch and listen as this item moves through the proper planning and zoning process at the city before making any decisions.”
DiCiccio said nothing can be done.
He said his Fire Department representative told him “they did not see a problem.”
“Additionally, we’ve been doing some research on our own to see if there has ever been a problem like that and we could not find anything that would indicate that would be a problem,” DiCiccio told AFN. “I completely understand what the neighbors are concerned about, but the property was zoned for this use in 2002 and once it’s zoned there’s virtually nothing we can do.”
Johnson, in an earlier interview, said hazmat occurrences at gas stations are not uncommon.
“No one can say it won’t happen,” he said. “It happens frequently enough that there are procedures for it locally and nationally.”
He said that the three fire stations in Ahwatukee respond to an average 17 calls a day.
“A lot of things happen that no one ever hears about,” he said.
He explained that spills can occur not just when vehicle tanks are being filled or when the gasoline storage tanks are being replenished.
“It could be as simple as a vehicle knocking a valve off,” Johnson said.
Gasoline vapors can travel with treacherous speed, and, depending on the direction of the wind, can settle around residential and garage doors or culverts, drains and ditches.
Even using a cellphone can create a spark that will set off an explosion, he said.
“All it takes is someone opening a door and creating static electricity,” Johnson said. “There’s a reason warning signs are around pumps telling people not to smoke or even use their cellphone.”
It’s not just the possibility of an explosion that makes gasoline spills dangerous.
Fumes can cause an array of respiratory and other harmful health effects.
Moreover, when a spill occurs, emergency crews immediately establish a three-ring perimeter around the area. Depending on the wind’s direction, people are evacuated in the opposite direction.
The problem for Foothills Paseo is that there is no “other direction.”
When a spill occurs, three zones are established around the contaminated area. The “warm zone” is 40-80 feet from the spill and open only to a decontamination team whose members are properly suited to deal with the spill.
Were a spill to occur on the QuikTrip site, that zone could theoretically prevent anyone from being evacuated through it because it would encompass the entire width of Cottonwood Way at its juncture with 40th Street.
DiCiccio also said that when the site was zoned C-2 in 2002, former mayor and now U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton thought a gas station was a good idea. At the time he was a city councilman representing the district that includes Ahwatukee.
“The other argument Greg Stanton had in 2002 when he zoned this property is that you really want to see gas stations along the freeway route,” DiCiccio said. “If you do not, people will be driving into neighborhoods to find fuel.”
But that was before Foothills Paseo became what it is today. Few homes existed when the land was initially zoned C-2.
Recently, the city revoked a permit for Dutch Brothers to operate a drive-through on Camelback Road and Central Avenue after numerous nearby residents complained that its constant stream of customers in cars had created a traffic nightmare.
Johnson said he is looking into that decision, hoping it might provide a way for the city to prevent a gas station from being built on the site — not just because of concerns about traffic in the area but also because of the possibility of gasoline spills.
But Planning Department spokeswoman Angie Holdsworth said the QuikTrip and Dutch Brothers issues “are totally different stories” because “there is no permit to revoke or evaluate at the QT location.”
Holdsworth also said the QuikTrip site plan is still under review and that “whatever the decision, it can be appealed and it would go to the Planning Commission.
“Their decision can also be appealed,” she said. “After that it would go to city council. If there are no appeals, it goes straight to city council. Any other public comment opportunity would come during/if there is an appeal. It is important to note that the rezoning stipulations are the only subject of this request and it is not changing the 2001 zoning decision which rezoned it to C-2.”
Asked about safety concerns, Holdsworth also said, “the developer still must meet life code safety standards in their plan review and pass all inspections.”