Irving Oil plans to rebuild gas station shuttered for a decade

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-22-2022 3:03 PM

WEST LEBANON — More than 12 years after it closed its Route 12A gas station, Irving Oil has submitted an ambitious plan to redevelop the derelict site with a large gas station and convenience store.

If completed, the project would rehabilitate a longstanding eyesore at the epicenter of the Route 12A retail district and provide the heavily traveled stretch with a third fueling option for motorists.

The plan, however, has run into tough questioning by members of Lebanon’s Zoning Board of Adjustment over the Canadian oil giant’s request to seek variances that would allow it to reuse the original tall sign and add a second free-standing sign to advertise gas prices.

Although Route 12A is a thicket of signs for national retailers and fast food franchises, an ordinance adopted in 2018 set new height and size rules and requires any non-conforming sign to apply for variance approval.

The former Irving gas station closed in 2010 when the I-89 overpass was rebuilt across Route 12A, which was widened near the exit and entrance ramps.

The wider road ate into the gas station’s setback, which didn’t leave enough room for gas pumps and a canopy on the existing lot. Since then, the lot property been a tumbleweed patch occupied by a hollow 1,300-square-foot store.

The former Kleen laundromat on the adjacent lot has also been vacant since 2019, when the Lebanon commercial cleaner went out of business.

Together with the empty gas station lot, the location offers a prime commercial redevelopment opportunity at the busiest interstate exit along the 150 miles between Burlington and Concord.

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But redevelopment of the site has been complicated because the two lots have different owners, but that has been resolved.

The Kleen lot is part of the Target shopping plaza property, which recently changed hands. The other 34,000-square-foot lot is owned by Irving Oil.

But shortly before The Davis. Cos. sold what used to be called Kmart Plaza and is now referred to as Target plaza for $30.6 million to California investors in December, the parties hammered out an agreement for a 20-year lease for Irving on 27,900 square feet of plaza space.

Irving’s site plan calls for tearing down the two existing structures and replacing them with a canopy-covered, 10-dispenser gas island on the north lot where the old gas station was located and a 4,465-square-foot convenience store where the dry cleaners had been.

During Irving’s presentation of the site plan before the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, the firm’s Concord-based attorney Maria Dolder outlined the project and petitioned the board to reuse the original 67-foot-tall, free-standing sign, which now exceeds the maximum height and size limits in the city, in the event the board does not accept the sign, erected in 1988, as grandfathered.

Irving also wants to install a second sign to post daily gas prices — as required in New Hampshire — at the lot’s northeast corner at the entrance of the shopping plaza, which requires a variance because it would be less than 150 feet away from the shopping plaza’s sign advertising the retailers at the plaza.

Other variances sought by Irving include allowing the canopy over the gas pumps to extend 11-feet closer to the property line dividing the two lots than the 20-feet minimum distance typically permitted.

While Irving believes the original tower sign, erected to be easily visible by drivers along I-89, should be grandfathered for use in the new complex, the issue became thorny as Dolder tussled with the board over whether the sign had been “abandoned” by Irving.

Before Dolder could even launch into the merits of her argument why a variance should be granted to the “pre-existing free-standing sign,” board member William Koppenheffer immediately signaled his skepticism over what he was about hear.

“I assume you’ve read our sign ordinance?” Koppenheffer said. “Our sign ordinance is pretty clear. A sign communicates a message. That’s in the definition in the zoning ordinance … that structure has not communicated a message since Irving left the property.”

Koppenheffer then pounced on the word “abandoned,” which the Irving engineer on the project had used a few minutes earlier when describing how the site “had to be abandoned” by Irving when the NH Department of Transportation took a portion of the property’s frontage to widen the road.

“I don’t consider it a sign but even if I did it hasn’t been used,” Koppenheffer said, citing the ordinance, which says if a sign use “has ceased, become vacant or been unoccupied for a period of 180 consecutive days or more” then “remove of the sign is required.”

“The business has ceased, the property was vacant and it certainly has been unoccupied for a period in excess of 180 days, unless you have evidence of the contrary,” Koppenheffer said.

Dolder, however, rejoined by noting that the city’s sign ordinance includes the language “intent to abandon” or “intent to discontinue use.”

“Irving always expressed that intent to continue using that sign,” she said, noting that Irving has submitted other site plans over the years with city staff showing as much.

She said Irving removed the sign face only because it did “not want consumers to be misled, to be brought to the site” in the expectation there was a gas station off the interstate exit.

But board member Jeremy Katz also said he “had some of the same thoughts” as the board chairman because he, too, had heard the word “abandoned” used by the project engineer a few minutes earlier.

“It does seems to me kind of odd that a use can be abandoned but somehow the sign can just continue to be reserved for some future time,” Katz said, adding he nonetheless is “open to being convinced” of Irving’s argument.

Dolder responded, “I’d like to clarify; whoever mentioned ‘abandoned,’ that was a misstatement.”

Dolder noted the Sunoco gas station directly opposite the Irving site on Route 12A has a “very similar sign.”

“It’s clear that simply allowing (the Irving sign) to remain at this point in time will not alter the essential characteristics of the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s already there.”

Because the high-rise sign is too high to affix daily gas price changes to, Irving wants to install a second free-standing sign at the plaza entrance, which Dolder said is the most feasible location.

At that point board members began tossing around their own ideas for posting gas prices without erecting another sign.

What about an electronic price changing sign attached to the high-rise sign?

City ordinances do not allow for electronic price-changing signs, Dolder pointed out.

What about placing the price-changing signs lower on the legs of high-rise sign that can be accessed by ladder and changed by hand?

The canopy above the case pumps would obstruct the “visuals,” explained Nicole Duquette, the project’s engineer.

Why not a ground-level “sandwich board” sign that once were common at gas stations?

“I’d have to look up the regulations,” offered Jennifer Daigle, project manager with Irving Oil.

“But we do want something that’s easily visible to the passing public and a sandwich board is very low to the ground, it might not be easily visible,” she said, “And in the winter they get covered with snow or become hazardous for the employees to be going out the snow bank to change it.”

After an hour Koppenheffer called for a break in the meeting and when the participants regathered a few minutes later he noted that, with other items on the evening’s agenda and variance requests requiring further review by the board, he called for a vote to continue the meeting to Thursday, June 16.

Dolder said that was fine and they would look at other possible options and be back

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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