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Yes, city officials and staff clashed over a car wash -- but also the future of Wilmington

Car Wash

This week, city staff and the city council fought a battle for the very soul and future of the city of Wilmington. At stake: the construction of a car wash at a major intersection in town.

It may sound melodramatic, but things at city council really got heated once discussions of a car wash came to the fore.

The lot in question is a small one- 1.5 acres right on the corner of Independence and Carolina Beach Road.

The applicant, Cindee Wolf explained the plans for a 4,000 square foot car wash, set back from the main road.

“The tract is already zoned for the commercial use,” she said. “It's a strip center with a parking lot facing Independence Boulevard. The proposal is not impacting any residents, and it hasn't received any opposition from the public in general.”

The owner of the property requested a rezoning, so they could build the carwash there. But the planning commission denied it, and staff recommended the same- citing the proximity to a major intersection as a poor location for an “auto-oriented use.” So Wolf brought the plans to council for a last attempt at getting the car wash built.

She suggested the business wouldn’t be such an ugly thing, especially considering its current context. “I know two wrongs don't make a right. But I'd venture to say that this is not as unattractive as the parking lot in front of the existing approved commercial center,” she said.

Councilor Charlie Rivenbark took umbrage with the staff recommendation to deny the zoning request, and thought it unfair when another car wash had been approved on the same block.

“How important was it in staff's decision to deny this, that the other carwash had been approved?” he asked.

Planning staff insisted the denial had nothing to do with the proximity of another planned car wash: It was simply that a car wash on that plot did not fit into the comprehensive plan. A retail business would be more appropriate, he suggested.

But to Rivenbark, that flies in the face of capitalist values. If someone owns the land, they should be able to build a business on it. “These folks are in the car wash business and have some successful businesses, and they're ready to do business,” he said. “I'm just flabbergasted.”

He pointed out that car washes are desired in Cape Fear for a reason: a lot of new apartments are going up, and residents can’t wash their own cars.

“Those apartment complexes aren't going away in two years. It's not a fad,” he said. “Those people need those services that you're talking about.”

At this point, Planning Director Glenn Harbecktook to the stand to defend the staff position, insisting that building this car wash was the wrong call. This was an opportunity, he suggested, for the city to decide what kind of city it wants to be in the future.

“There was a time in our country, when major intersections called for significant buildings, significant landmark statements about a city,” he said. “This is a major intersection in town. So the twist on the new comprehensive plan that was advocated for by the steering committee was to take our city in a different direction.”

Harbeck said a major intersection like Independence and Carolina Beach Road deserved a major building: something like a significant office building, a bank, or another standout for the corner.

“Rather than having a major street like Carolina Beach Road or Independence Boulevard, just be catch as catch can, whatever comes along, if it's a business and it can thrive there, then let it go. Just do it. That’s a different philosophy than saying that our major intersections in town deserve buildings of substance and significance,” Harbeck said.

Still, some on the council were concerned about discrimination against certain kinds of businesses. Councilor Neil Anderson asked why car washes in particular were getting quashed by staff.

Harbeck answered: “It wouldn't be just car washes. If it were a McDonald's at that corner, the staff would have the same opinion.”

To Harbeck, it’s a philosophical question. This isn’t just one carwash, he suggests, this is the future of Wilmington. Should this town develop randomly, with businesses going anywhere they can make money? Or should there be a strategy to make sure Wilmington looks beautiful well into the future?

And he doesn’t think that discerning eye will stall development.

“I think if you look at the trajectory of the city over the last 40 years, we have had pretty much consistent continuing development of our city. So rather than look at this from the standpoint of just one lot or one parcel, you got to look at the totality of the city and say, are we continuing to see investment?” he asked, rhetorically. “We are. And so if a property happens to sit vacant for a number of years, that's just the natural progression of a city.”

Some elected officials agreed with Harbeck, like Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes.

“It has to do with the concept and the theory of having a more attractive city,” she said. “I believe it is my responsibility of looking to the future and trying to institute the comprehensive plan.”

But ultimately, arguments in favor of the car wash won out. Council voted 4-2 in favor of the zoning change, with Haynes and Councilor Clifford Barnett voting against (councilman Kevin O'Grady wasn't present at the meeting).

Harbeck said he will keep waiting for the city to turn in a new direction, towards a thoughtfully planned future. And the comprehensive plan remains available as a tool for that change.