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‘Don’t gas our kids’: Why angry Fort Mill parents’ 7-Eleven protest may not matter.

Fort Mill SC school parents upset by gas station plan

Doby's Bridge Elementary School parents in Fort Mill SC are upset about a 7-Eleven gas station. It will be beside the school playground.
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Doby's Bridge Elementary School parents in Fort Mill SC are upset about a 7-Eleven gas station. It will be beside the school playground.

More upset parents than the fire marshal would allow in Fort Mill’s planning commission meeting gathered there Tuesday.

Their message? “Don’t Gas Our Kids.”

Many of the roughly 50 adults and students held those signs in protest of a 7-Eleven proposed right beside Doby’s Bridge Elementary School. The project came to the planning commission for appearance review, a step that determines building materials and sidewalk placement but typically won’t keep a project from happening.

“We’re with you,” said planning commission member Chris Wolfe. “We just can’t solve your problem.”

The reason is the property already has, by right, the highway commercial zoning needed to allow gas stations. If the property owner requested, the planning commission could recommend and Fort Mill Town Council decide on a zoning change. A zoning board then could decide on appeal or variance if one were required.

In the 7-Eleven case, zoning is set.

“The zoning that’s in place has a long list of uses that are approved by right,” said Chairman James Traynor. “And a gas station is one of the uses that is a use by right once they have the zoning.”

Doby’s Bridge parents aren’t happy about it.

David Kumpula has a daughter going into second grade at the school. He points to maps that show the gas pump directly across from the school playground. He also points to the school air intake system.

“It’s not only just the playground, which is directly next to the gas station, but also that there’s going to be gas fumes being pumped into the school every single day,” Kumpala said.

Parents argue the setup is unsafe, due to the potential for fire and from constant gas fumes. Some argued it’s bad business for 7-Eleven since so many school parents will refuse to use the gas station. Several parents allowed their children to make their cases.

Brylee Wofford and Sahana Sanjay are fourth-graders at the school.

“We don’t want it to be built there because like all those fumes will travel into their playground and go all throughout the school,” Wofford said.

She believes gas station fumes will be bad for breathing and could cause cancer. Sanjay is concerned about students, but also teachers.

“We don’t want a gas station right next to our playground, because kids can get sick,” she said.

Second-grader Maya Brazee agreed.

“We think it will be dangerous for children,” she said.

Planning commission members say they understand parents’ frustration, but there isn’t anything they can do to kill the project.

“If it was zoned residential, you couldn’t put a gas station in there,” Wolfe said. “It’s highway commercial, so you can’t put a pawn shop or a junkyard. That’s what we mean by right.”

Wolfe said he grew up two houses down from a gas pump in Fort Mill. He believes in good zoning, even when at times conflicts like this one arise between neighboring land uses.

“I grew up here,” Wolfe said. “There was no zoning so there would be a church, a house, a trailer and a junkyard. And a chicken coop. So that’s why I’m a big advocate of zoning, so when you buy you know, this is my neighborhood.”

The gas station on two acres is part of a larger commercial property to include a self-storage site, across from a Harris Teeter in a part of Fort Mill where commercial growth is expected. Much of the commercial zoning predates the opening of Doby’s Bridge Elementary in 2014.

Parents pressed Tuesday on how long a decision might take, and what other groups they could petition.

Chris Pettit, assistant town manager and former town planning director, said at this point decisions come down to town staff, code enforcement and the applicant’s ability to meet building requirements through permitting.

“It varies,” Pettit said. “It could be two weeks. It could go through several reviews of revisions required for building code, fire code, those types of things. It could be a month, or two months.”

He stressed town staff isn’t at a point of denying 7-Eleven the right to build. Planning staff will make sure codes are met.

“Once the property is zoned and it goes through the zoning process, this is a use that’s allowed in this area,” Pettit said. “It’s an administrative process from there as long as they meet zoning code, building code, fire code.”

Planning staff told residents that if the gas station just across from the school raises red flags with road, building or other engineers who have to sign off on the 7-Eleven, the plan could change. But those experts will be the ones to determine how safe the neighboring sites are.

“Before they would start installing the gas tanks, it would have to go through a full approval process,” Pettit said.

In 2007, federal requirements led to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developing school siting guidelines. Those guidelines aim to identify potential environmental concerns near schools. The purpose of the guidelines is to inform school board decisions on where to place schools, not necessarily what other land uses to allow near them.

Those rules don’t set hard and fast distances a school needs to be from a gas station, instead favoring site-specific conversations regarding schools. The guidelines generally state heavily-trafficked roads and gas station fumes should be as far from schools as a site allows. Specifically playgrounds and air intakes shouldn’t be near those uses, when possible.

Highest levels of air pollutants from vehicles typically occur within 500 feet of a roadway, according to the guidelines. The Doby’s Bridge playground sits within 500 feet of the gas pumps.

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