Foothills Paseo II residents’ hopes of stopping a controversial plan for a QuikTrip gas station at the only entrance to their subdivision may be on life-support.
The owner of the lot at the southeast corner of 40th Street and Cottonwood Way may be undertaking a legal end-run that would not require city Planning and Development Department involvement, closing an avenue that residents had hoped to use to stop the gas station from going in.
“We believe the developer is making revisions to the plans so he won’t need modifications to the zoning stipulations and therefore won’t need to go through the Hearing Officer process in order to develop,” said planning department spokeswoman Angie Holdsworth. “They haven’t withdrawn their request yet.”
Because the lot has been zoned C-2 Commercial for about 20 years, that means that aside from standard business and related permits, the gas station and the lot owner apparently have clear sailing to implement the plan.
Had the developer still sought changes to their original site plan, the residents had a chance of appealing to a planning department hearing officer to withhold approval — although it is unclear if they could ultimately have prevailed in their effort to block the gas station.
The plan has been a lightning rod for controversy as most of the approximate 185 homeowners have opposed it because it sits alongside the only way in and out of their community.
Besides concerns about traffic and safety conditions, residents also oppose the gas station because they believe the lack of a second exit from the community would pose a danger in the event of a chemical spill.
At the same time, those concerns have sparked a social media flare-up as other Ahwatukee residents voiced support for QuikTrip.
“We are not opposed to commercial development,” resident Brie Nelson has repeatedly stated, noting that a C-2 zoning allows for a wide variety of retail establishments that would not pose a potential hazardous materials danger.
But overall traffic safety issues have been raised since the Arizona Department of Transportation owns the frontage area along 40th Street in front of the gas station property and has already said it won’t allow QuikTrip entrance or exit from that thoroughfare.
That means traffic in both directions on 40th Street would be using narrow two-lane Cottonwood Way — the only way in or out of Foothills Paseo II — to get into and out of QuikTrip.
A lawyer for the lot owner told the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee two months ago that the city cannot forbid the use of Cottonwood Way since that in effect would prevent the owner from utilizing the property.
If built, the gas station promises to be a gold mine for both QuikTrip and the lot owner.
It would be the closest gas station for South Mountain Freeway traffic along the highway’s Pecos stretch. It also is a stone’s throw from a large park-n-ride lot at the southern end of 40th Street.
The developer had gone to the planning committee to seek approval for changes to the site plan that was approved by the city when the lot was initially zoned commercial.
Those changes covered relatively minor matters such as the height of the structure, but did not involve the uses for which the lot can be developed.
But residents have argued that zoning approval was made long before most of the houses were even built in Foothills Paseo II.
While supporters of QuikTrip have said on social media that homeowners should have known the property would one day serve a commercial purpose, residents say that the zoning is so broad that they would hardly have imagined the lot would one day be home to a gas station.
Phoenix Fire Department Capt. Derrick Johnson, a resident of Foothills Paseo II, has raised the alarm about the potential hazardous chemical issues that a gas station presents.
Stressing he is speaking as a resident and not as a city firefighter, his concerns and those of his neighbors have drawn the attention of Mayor Kate Gallego and the Legislative District 18 delegation.
“My focus is making sure that I’m connecting the residents to the proper agencies and levels of government to address their concerns,” said state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine.
“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.”
But it appears there’s nothing the mayor or legislators can do despite their sympathy for the residents’ concerns.
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.
But Johnson is concerned not only about the potential danger of an explosion, but also about vapors from a gasoline spill, which he said could make the community’s evacuation all but impossible.
City Councilman Sal DiCiccio said nothing can be done to stop QuikTrip and has said a deputy Fire Department commissioner looked into the situation and told him “they did not see a problem.”
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.
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.
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.”