Gerald Black has done his car shopping at big franchise dealerships before, but this week, he was comparing cars at a smaller, independent used car lot, one of several that line the main roads coming off of Interstate 77. They tend to be good places to hunt for a deal, he thinks.
“If you don’t have great income or credit, a place like this can give you good prices on a mid-range car,” Black said. “I drive a truck, and I work for a smaller company, so I know sometimes you can get better service at a smaller place. It’s all about good customer service.”
But city planners are worried about the number of smaller lots where car-shoppers can hunt for those deals. They say Rock Hill has seen a “significant increase” in the number of people seeking sites for used car lots, many of them in areas the city is targeting for redevelopment for potentially more upscale businesses, such as Cherry Road and the Knowledge Park area.
On Monday, the Rock Hill City Council gave first-reading approval to an ordinance that would tighten rules for auto sales businesses that seek to open in the future, while also asking the Planning Commission to propose “upgrades” for existing car lots’ parking, fencing and landscaping requirements.
Because dealers often only need a small building and a parking lot to open shop, planners say they don’t have a chance to correct “non-conformities” in the site that would normally kick in if a business renovated the site before opening. The result can be a business that doesn’t fit on the lot or look very attractive from the roadway.
“They tend to cluster together,” said city planner Leah Youngblood, “and other businesses will not be enticed to open where a lot of them are.”
Rock Hill’s 45 car lots – including five new-car dealerships – provide one lot for every 1,800 residents, and the planning office gets requests from two or three new ones per week, Youngblood said. Seventy-five percent of those are on unpaved lots or lots that lack landscaping or adequate parking. Some “pack in” cars on less than an acre.
“On Cherry, we have a lot of functionally obsolete commercial buildings from the ’60s and ’70s, that do not meet modern retail or restaurant standards,” said city Planning Director Bill Meyer. “So it’s started to be a target for car lots, because they just need a desk and a place to park cars.”
The proposed changes would limit which zoning districts would allow auto sales, require a minimum 1.5-acre lot, paved parking and landscaping, and limit signs placed on cars to a “reasonable size.”
As a “pending” ordinance, the city will begin enforcing the new standards on any new applications, but any recommended changes for existing lots won’t come back to the City Council until at least January. Youngblood said the city would reach out to dealers and property owners in the meantime to hear their concerns.
They might hear that many owners say Rock Hill’s used car lots are already limited in how they can operate and promote themselves. Gary Dean oversees more than 100 vehicles on North Anderson Road as co-owner of DrivewayCars.com. He gives an example from a previous location on Riverview Road, where the car lot sat next door to a motorcycle shop.
“We were inside the city limit, and the motorcycle guy was outside,” Dean said. “We couldn’t really do a whole lot with signs, and he had a 40-foot-tall sign right on the interstate.”
Instead, his lot is “maxed out” on signs, Dean said, with the size of the lettering on either side of the building limited by a mathematical formula, depending on whether it faces the road, and limited in how much he can do with an electronic sign at the maximum height of 8 feet.
“We can’t do anything with multi-colored lights or flash, and anything we put up has to stay for at least five minutes,” he said. “We’ve got a $12,000 sign that we use to half its potential.”
He estimates his location gets 2,000 drive-bys in a day, “and how many of them notice us?”
Jeff Piechowicz, the manager of M&M Motors on Cherry Road, has operated car lots in New York and North Carolina, and says Rock Hill is “one of the strictest places I’ve ever worked in.”
“It’s like Rock Hill just doesn’t want car lots,” he said.
If used car lots can’t operate, he worries it would remove the “subprime market” for carbuyers who can’t afford newer models.
“Our cars sell anywhere between $6,000 and $10,000,” Piechowicz said. “At a franchise place, 75 percent of them won’t touch a car like that.”
That can make a difference to the customer on the lot. Before Black buys his next car, he wants to see what the bigger franchises and the smaller used lots can offer him.
“I feel like there should be a place for both,” Black said.