The Carmel City Council approved an ordinance at its Sept. 20 meeting that increases the setback for new gas stations adjacent to residential areas and schools from 80 to 500 feet, with an exception that’s left some supporters of the ordinance disappointed.
The matter came to the city’s attention last year after several Village of WestClay residents organized to protest a Family Express gas station proposed near homes and a senior living facility, citing concerns about the health impacts of constant exposure to benzene fumes. They formed the Carmel Healthy Neighborhood Alliance in part to advocate for the increased setback, which received approval from the Carmel Plan Commission before heading to the city council.
However, the new requirement isn’t likely to apply to their community.
Carmel Interim Corp. Counsel Jon Oberlander told the council that per state law, the ordinance applies to all areas of the city not zoned for a Planned Unit Development, a designation that essentially allows a developer to propose its own zoning code, subject to city approval. The increased setback does apply to PUDs that don’t specifically address the issue.
But in the Village of WestClay, developed under a PUD approved more than two decades ago, Oberlander said the new ordinance will not apply.
Councilor Miles Nelson, who lives in the Village of WestClay and was a vocal supporter of the ordinance, said he is disappointed the new requirement isn’t more binding.
“The challenge I see is we can make a decision here now that will help ensure the safety of the community and ensure there is clean water to drink and clean air to breathe, yet a future council could be swayed by something else and allow a gas station to be placed close to a school, homes or an assisted living facility,” he said. “I think that’s a problem.”
Oberlander said the city could possibly open opportunities for litigation if councilors added specific language regarding PUDs. Despite the fact that future councils could approve PUDs that don’t follow the increased setback, he indicated that the ordinance shows the council’s intent.
“You’re making the statement loud and clear that this is what you feel is right,” Oberlander said.
Councilor Adam Aasen said he was disappointed the council couldn’t do more to strengthen the requirement but joined the other seven members present in voting in favor of the change.
“While I think these changes are a positive step, it’s disappointing there’s only so much we can do,” he said. “But the good news is that if a future council puts a gas station there, they have to vote to make it happen, and they’ll be on the record in doing that.”
Jackie Phillips, acting chair of CHNA, said she is pleased that the ordinance passed and “thrilled knowing that Carmel is a healthier place because of the action of our city council.”
However, with another gas station proposed on the same site as the Family Express, which abandoned its plans to build in the Village of WestClay, she is now focused on “the imminent danger” that could be coming to her neighborhood, even beyond benzene fumes.
“All of the Village of WestClay ponds connect, and the everyday spills and leaks of gasoline will end up in our ponds and storm drains and possibly the nearby wetlands,” Phillips said. “We’re concerned about what that would mean for the wildlife, as the gasoline spills will go into the storm drains and end up in ponds, which is what we use for irrigation for the neighborhood, therefore spreading contaminated water throughout the village.”