City planners look at used car lots

The desire by Rock Hill officials to prevent a multitude of small, unsightly used car lots from cropping up around the city is understandable. But we hope city officials manage to strike a reasonable balance between enforcing development standards and stifling legitimate commerce.

City planners and members of the City Council are set to impose an ordinance that would tighten rules for future auto sales businesses. They also have asked the Planning Commission to take a look at the rules for existing car lots, including fencing, signage and landscaping requirements.

Concerns stem from the proliferation of new lots, many of which set up shop in buildings that once housed other businesses. All that car sellers need to start a business is a relatively large parking lot and a building of some kind.

Rock Hill already is home to 45 car lots, including five new-car dealerships. And city planner Leah Youngblood says she gets two or three requests for new lots every week.

She worries that many of the proposed lots are unpaved, too cramped or lack the proper landscaping required of other new businesses. And in some cases, prospective dealers want to cluster together with other dealers.

Planners fear – legitimately, we think – that the lots won’t fit in with adjacent businesses and that they could discourage other investors from locating nearby. The city is especially concerned about areas it hopes to establish as prime commercial space, including Knowledge Park and a refurbished Cherry Road.

But at the same time, small, traditional used car lots always have and will continue to provide an affordable option for buyers who can’t afford a new car. And if they didn’t make money for owners, there wouldn’t be so many prospective dealers requesting approval from the city.

Granted, the car business is changing. Many now shop online for used cars, and smaller dealerships must compete with national mega-sellers such as CarMax.

Nonetheless the niche remains for the local, smaller-scale used-car lot. But the city has a legitimate interest in ensuring that these businesses conform to minimum appearance standards.

Like other businesses, they should have to landscape around their lots. Their signs should not be obtrusive, and they shouldn’t be allowed to cram too many cars onto their lots.

Likewise, the city should be able to use zoning codes to limit the number of car lots if they begin to exceed what the area market can reasonably handle. The city has done that with apartment complexes, limiting new units as they threaten to encroach on single-family housing developments.

We think a reasonable middle ground can be established. The city needs to let businesses sell used cars but also ensure that commercial space remains available for a suitable mix of enterprises.

We want to encourage the re-use of buildings that have been abandoned by failing businesses. But we also want to prevent every vacant lot in town from filling up with used cars.

It’s a balancing act we think the city can manage.