A dispute over a rogue car wash driveway at Buchanan’s Service Center in Dundee is testing the theory that it’s better to beg for forgiveness tomorrow than to ask for permission today.
Owner Steve Buchanan recently had the driveway installed without acquiring a building permit or the proper zoning from the city. That has him in hot water with the City of Omaha.
The driveway also is straining relations between Buchanan, whose company owns Bucky’s convenience stores, and the neighbors who zealously guard the character of the historic Dundee neighborhood where he got his start in business.
The drama played out in public at a City Planning Board meeting this week. It appears likely to go on for months and end up in front of the Omaha City Council.
The dispute revolves around the gas station and car repair garage on the southwest corner of 50th and Dodge Streets. There has been a service station there for almost 100 years. Buchanan bought it in 1979. He was 19 years old. It was his first gas station. His company has grown to include more than 75 convenience stores and gas stations in Nebraska, Illinois and Missouri, plus fuel supply and transport divisions.
Generations of Dundee dwellers have gone to 50th and Dodge for gas and automobile repairs. Buchanan’s has endured while other neighborhood businesses such as independent grocery and hardware stores have left the heart of Dundee.
The car wash has been there since 1969. A notoriously squeezy route to it, which carries dirty autos off 50th Street to the car wash’s rear entrance, then sends them gleaming into Dodge Street, has been a headache for decades.
“We almost took it as a challenge to get into the car wash,” Peter Manhart, board president of the Dundee-Memorial Park Association, told the Planning Board this week. “We saw all the people who didn’t do it right.”
Drivers tore up turf, broke sprinkler heads and caused other damage.
Buchanan made a move to expand the service station property to the south about 10 years ago. He bought the house next door, at 106 S. 50th St., and tore it down in 2007. He removed an old retaining wall, built a new one and put up a fence on part of the lot.
Ten years ago, Buchanan backed off an expansion plan that included an extended car wash driveway after city planning officials and neighbors opposed his application to have the residential land rezoned for commercial use.
Then this year, Buchanan had a new driveway poured. Someone complained to the Planning Department. The city told Buchanan that he would have to take out the concrete. Besides Buchanan having no permit, the driveway encroaches on land zoned for residential use.
Buchanan applied for rezoning. He submitted a plan to put in a six-foot privacy fence and more landscaping to better screen the car wash and lighting from the nearby homes. The city put the enforcement on hold while that application is pending.
“We had customers driving over the grass and getting stuck and running into objects,” Buchanan said. “So we poured some concrete to have access to the back. That was a mistake, and I take full responsibility for that.”
He said he received bad advice from his in-house counsel.
“So I’m here today to ask forgiveness for doing that, and to see if the neighborhood will allow us to extend that entrance around that rear access point so that we can have cars enter safely,” Buchanan said.
The Dundee-Memorial Park Association board and several individual neighbors oppose the rezoning, although one next-door homeowner supports it. A letter from the neighborhood association board called building the driveway “a blatant attempt by this business owner to circumvent the rules of our city in an effort to force the city and neighbors to accept commercial zoning by railroading the application through the process.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Manhart said neighbors’ biggest concern was the possibility of further expansion.
“We’re in Dundee,” he said. “This is not west Omaha with sprawling real estate. This is Dundee, where we do have a lot of commercial and residential close together, and we have to live together harmoniously.”
An attorney for Buchanan, Ryann Glenn, said neighbors have expressed concern that “this is just a tipping point for Steve to be able to expand his existing footprint and build a major Bucky’s convenience center that you see throughout the city.”
“That’s ultimately, absolutely not the case,” Glenn said.
Buchanan wants it to remain a mom and pop neighborhood service station, she said. To rebuild trust with neighbors, she said, Buchanan is offering to sign a development agreement that “would tie Bucky’s hands in perpetuity, to not expand the existing structure beyond what it is currently.”
Planning Board member Trenton Magid, calling Buchanan “a humble guy” who still works on customers’ cars and does what he says he’s going to do, suggested postponing a decision for one month to give neighbors and city officials time to look over that agreement. Manhart said the association supported a delay. The board voted to postpone a decision until November.
But the development agreement isn’t a factor for the city, City Planning Director Dave Fanslau said. The recommendation will still be to deny the rezoning because it goes against the city’s Master Plan and encroaches into the residential neighborhood.
“The car wash was constructed with a paved entrance, which still exists today and can operate as it has for years,” the city’s recommendation says. “The illegal driveway expansion and related improvements to the residentially zoned property must be removed.”
Planning Board members appeared to be split on the issue. Greg Rosenbaum and Mike Pate said retroactively approving the commercial use of residential lands would create future problems for the city.
“It appears the applicant knew the problems back in 2008, didn’t go through the proper channels since 2008, went ahead and put this in without a permit and without getting the proper permission,” said Rosenbaum, the board chairman. “What do we do as a Planning Department, or a Planning Board, when the next applicant comes along and says, ‘Well, I knew better, but I went ahead and did it anyway?’ And the next applicant, and the next applicant.”
Magid said he gets that. But he said that in practical terms, there’s never going to be a house on the lot again. So why make the business tear out the car wash driveway?