YORKTOWN, N.Y. - The dispute over the gas station formerly known as Hilltop Service Station was expected to be resolved at the Jan. 3 town board meeting; however, the decision was postponed pending the submission of a completed site plan.
At the hearing to rezone Mohegan Auto and Tire Center, which opened Nov. 1 and closed late last month, residents have continued to express mixed feelings about the project. The town board has requested that an updated site plan featuring requested changes be presented prior to making its decision.
The issue has been debated since last year when owner Diah Hamed purchased the gas station, which consists of two parcels: one residentially zoned lot where the gas station sits and one transitionally zoned lot in the back. According to town officials, he removed fencing and shrubbery from the property and began storing and selling used cars without obtaining proper permits from the town.
Hamed, speaking at the Nov. 1 hearing, said he did not mean to offend anyone by cutting down trees, and that the removal of the vegetation began while he was cleaning up a garbage-filled swale he believed to be on his property. Grace later corrected him and said the swale was technically on an adjacent property.
Hamed added that he cleaned up an existing environmental issue by removing the old gas tanks that were in disrepair and installing state-of-the-art equipment.
“I put a lot of money into this,” he said.
Chris Sciarra of CS Construction and Home Improvement Inc., who has been working with Hamed, said the state conducted an examination of the site and a violation was never issued.
“The [state] commended him for actually cutting it all down and cleaning it up,” he said
While many residents have said they appreciate the owner’s consideration of the building’s aesthetics and acknowledged improvements, they feel that removing the trees draws more attention to a commercial business in a primarily residential setting.
“Town code specifically says there’s only supposed to be a certain amount of cars per acre and I’m sure that he is well over that,” said resident Jim Heller.
Heller is opposed to the rezone and has spoken out against the removal of the property’s greenery. Additionally, he is among the several residents concerned with the property’s contrast to the character of the neighborhood.
He and other residents worry about the area’s “small-town feel” being removed. Others said the town should be supportive of a business owner looking to operate within the town at a time when small businesses are being pushed out.
Resident Geri Schwalb said in November that prior to the removal of the trees, no one could see the used-car lot. She said she wasn’t so against the sale of used cars as the increased visibility of them.
Others said it boils down to an issue of right and wrong. Without the go-ahead from the appropriate agencies, they say, Hamed violated the town code. Board members have also acknowledged the perception of Hamed “thumbing his nose” at the board and some residents worry that since no fines were administered, a precedent has been set: do now, and ask forgiveness later.
Former Town Supervisor Susan Siegel has said Hamed violated the property’s site plan and the tree ordinance that was in effect at the time. She also said a 2001 town resolution directly prohibits the commercial sale of used cars on the lot and that it’s up to the town board to levy fines against Hamed.
Supervisor Michael Grace, however, said the legality of Hamed’s actions are not black and white. At the hearing, he said that without proof that the sale took place in the back lot instead of the front lot, nothing can be enforced.
“There’s not necessarily a prosecutable event that took place,” Grace said. “If he put up signage that would have been something that’s enforceable because I can regulate that kind of commercial speech. If he actually performs a sales transaction on his property, I don’t see how you can prosecute that because anyone can do that anywhere they want. If we felt that he had an offense that was worth prosecuting we would have done something.”
He also said that the proposed site plan is an opportunity to rectify any considered misuse of the property and that reflecting on past use is unproductive.
“The issue at hand is whether we should allow what it is that he’s looking to do,” Grace said. “The retrospective use of property is not an issue in an application for a rezoning, so we’re dealing with the prospective use.”
Hamed and Sciarra, along with engineer Joseph Riina, have been working closely with the town board and planning department to reach a compromise with the site plan so that it neither limits the business nor disturbs the neighborhood’s character. Such compromises have included proposing a stone wall with a “Welcome to Shrub Oak” message, the horizontal placement of price signs as opposed to the typical vertical placement, and the size of new shrubs and fencing.
Cars will be visible without the use of banners, signage or other typical sales lots and vegetation blocking some of the view according to the proposed plan.
“I think in principal, everything is ready for some type of decision,” John Tegeder, planning director, said after the December public hearing.
As soon as the site plan amendments are added, the decision can be rescheduled onto the public agenda, as soon as this month, he said.