CAPE ELIZABETH — The Planning Board will review a request from a Shore Road business for a zoning variance to allow used car sales in the town’s Business A zone.
The council voted unanimously on Feb. 12 to send the request from Cape Service Center, at 560 Shore Road, to the Planning Board for a recommendation before it comes back to the council.
During the meeting, Town Manager Matt Sturgis said Cape Elizabeth Service Center, the former Cape Irving gas station, has occasionally sold used cars for many years. He said Code Enforcement Officer Ben McDougal until recently was not aware the business was selling cars in conflict with zoning regulations.
“They would fix one up and sell it on occasion,” Sturgis said, although the practice is not allowed in the Business A district.
Cindy Clark, the daughter of shop owners Ray and Michelle Clark, said this surprised her. She is the oldest of four siblings, all of whom work in or help out at the business.
According to Clark, the service center has never sold cars off of its lot under the company name.
“Maybe once a year we would buy a car that an owner doesn’t want to put the work in to fix it up, so I would buy it and register it under my name and sell it privately,” Clark said.
She said she would bring the cars, unless they couldn’t be moved, to her home in Windham to repair and sell. The process of transferring titles and registering the cars, she added, is very tedious, expensive, and “inconvenient for customers.”
“We never sold it under the business because we couldn’t legally do it in that zone,” Clark said. “I think there was just a misunderstanding. … We haven’t been approved for it, so of course we haven’t done it.”
According to the business’ proposal, a maximum of three dealer plates would be used at a time and cars would be parked in the lot, which fits around 20 to 40 vehicles.
Clark said she’d be suprised if the lot ever had three cars for sale at a time.
“Right now, we’re only privately selling one or two cars a year,” she said. “We don’t want to do something huge, we just want to be able to add another facet to our business.”
No additional signs would be needed, other than 8 1/2-by-11-inch “For Sale” signs in the car windows.
The Business A description says the zone is “comprised of neighborhood business districts in which the business uses are geared to the needs of nearby residents rather than a large scale, regional destination center.”
Permitted nonresidential uses include village retail shops, gas stations, restaurants, business offices, and repair shops, but not car dealerships.
The service center’s proposal states that they’re requesting used car dealer plates to better serve their local customers.
“We removed our business’ eight gas pumps in 2014, which dramatically reduced our traffic flow,” the letter said. “Used car dealer plates would help increase our property’s value and serviceability while having no negative impact on our neighborhood.”
Clark added that she can’t imagine having three dealer plates would increase traffic flow to anywhere near what it was when the business was pumping gas.
Peter Greenwood lives directly behind the service center at 592 Preble St. On Feb. 21, he said he hadn’t heard of the proposal, but had no issue with it at face value.
“I’ve found them to be very good neighbors,” Greenwood said. “We could run into some congestion if a lot of people want to look around because it’s a narrow street. But, I think they could figure that out.”
But Councilor Christopher Straw also lives down the street from the service center at 597 Shore Road, and said he is concerned a zoning variance could create a “back-door car lot.”
However, Councilor Caitlin Jordan said if the council makes the change, it would be tied to repair garages specifically and car sales would only be allowed at those locations.
Tom Piscopo, owner of The Cookie Jar bakery next door to the service center, said he has always had a good relationship with the Clarks and wouldn’t have a problem with them selling a few cars off of their lot.
“I don’t think three cars would make too much of a difference (or) be an issue,” he said on Feb. 22. “I’ve been here all my life and never have had a problem with anyone over there.”
Sturgis said he expects to see the request on the Planning Board’s agenda in March.
“We’re just hoping to be able to do something else to help the business and the community,” Clark said. “We wouldn’t be running a small car lot by any means.”
The Cape Elizabeth Service Center at 560 Shore Road is seeking a zoning variance from the town to allow it to sell used cars, which is now a prohibited use in the town’s Business A zone.