Nishil Patel wants to sell distilled spirits in Longview, but a city procedural change might be the only return he sees on the more-than half-million dollars he’s invested.
Examination of how Patel got to this point has shed light on apparent weaknesses in City Hall procedures and the challenges they can cause for business development.
Patel has secured permits and a deed to the only property he says can support his concept for a high-end wine and spirits shop in fast-growing Northeast Longview. On March 23, however, all that money and groundwork could go down the drain.
In a vote scheduled for that day, he will need a supermajority of the Longview City Council — six of its seven members — to rezone his property on North Eastman Road. Without the zoning change, he will not be able to operate his Heritage Wine & Spirits.
Standing in his way are 16-year-old restrictions. But Patel says he was not made aware of them until after buying the property in November.
City officials say the restrictions were not properly recorded in the Code of Ordinances, but instead in lesser-viewed records. From now on, city staff says, it will more thoroughly research records and resolutions in zoning requests.
“We need to be providing reliable information to developers that are investing in our community,” District 4 Councilwoman Kristen Ishihara said Friday.
The local law guiding where such stores can locate appears to be simple.
Ordinances allow package stores only on property zoned for heavy commercial uses unless City Council members add certain stipulations or restrictions to a rezoning request.
Package stores — the term for retail outlets that sell prepackaged alcoholic beverages for off-premise consumption — also are not allowed within 300 feet of churches, schools or residences.
Longview police and planning staff have confirmed Heritage Wine & Spirits would not violate those distance ordinances.
In the past, however, additional restrictions on some properties — such as Patel’s — did not get recorded and were not reflected on Longview zoning maps, according to city staff.
“When staff verifies zoning, we review zoning maps that are readily available. In the past, stipulations weren’t always reflected on the zoning maps,” City Planner Angela Choy said last week. “You would have to know keywords or years to research the paper trail for the adoption of the zoning case.”
Patel’s property has the appropriate heavy commercial zoning.
But it also has restrictions prohibiting certain types of businesses, including package stores.
He wants it to be rezoned to planned development-heavy commercial to remove the package store prohibition.
Without rezoning, no alcoholic beverages can be sold on the property.
Choy said the situation has changed how city planning staff search zoning records.
“Because of this case, staff has decided to research all zoning cases, which is a lot, to ensure that our maps and logbooks reflect what was passed by City Council,” she said.
Ishihara suggested no one should be blamed, but said the city is at fault in regards to not having the information properly recorded and, therefore, not providing correct information to Patel.
“The error, however, is not something that should or will be considered in the application to remove those restrictions,” she said.
Package store zoning
In 1978, the city defined and created a category for package stores, requiring them to be in heavy commercial, central business or industrial zoning. Before that time, alcoholic beverage sales were allowed in general retail zones.
Twenty-two years later, a previous owner of Patel’s property — Harry Fox — sought rezoning to allow for a package store. The City Council and planning and zoning board denied the request, according to city records.
In 2001, Fox found a buyer who wanted to open a business serving exterminator needs and selling paintball equipment and supplies. Fox again asked for rezoning, this time with stipulations excluding package stores, sexually oriented businesses, clubs and taverns. The City Council approved the request on a 5-2 vote.
Coincidentally, Mayor Andy Mack was a council member at the time and made the motion to approve the rezoning — referred to as Ordinance No. 3024 — with former Mayor Jay Dean, also then a councilman, seconding, according to city records.
Fox agreed to add the stipulations to the property deed as well.
Ordinance No. 3024 appears in the city’s Ordinance and Resolution records, according to minutes from the April 12, 2001, City Council meeting.
But Ordinance and Resolution records are different from the city’s Code of Ordinances, Development Services Director Michael Shirley said.
“The Code of Ordinances is the chapter format of most if not all regulations adopted by council ordinance,” he said. “Since a rezone is an amendment to the zoning ordinance, it is done by ordinance but not codified. All ordinances and resolutions are filed in the city secretary’s office by number.”
Patel is not the first businessman to see opportunity for wine and spirits sales at the busy North Eastman Road intersection.
In December 2013, Penny Sidhu sought rezoning for his property, which is directly across the highway from Patel’s, at 2001 N. Eastman Road. The property has an Exxon convenience store and Subway restaurant.
Changing the zoning from general retail to heavy commercial would have allowed Sidhu to build a high-end package store there as well.
Shirley, who was city planner at that time, recommended denial of the request because it would have been illegal spot zoning, he said.
Spot zoning occurs when a single lot of land in a neighborhood is singled out and placed in a different zone than that of neighboring properties.
The city rejected Sidhu’s request in 2013.
Fast forward to 2016, when Patel began taking hard steps toward his own high-end wine and spirits concept across the road.
In October, the city secretary’s office granted him the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission permit needed to operate a package store at the location.
Planning and Zoning staff signed off on the permit after staffers reviewed Longview zoning maps and found no mention of any stipulations at the location, according to city records.
Two weeks after getting his permit, Patel said, he purchased the property and later posted signage on the Eastman Road lot denoting it as the future home of Heritage Wine & Spirits.
He also set up a predevelopment meeting with zoning staff for Nov. 10 to discuss renovations to the building on the property.
Choy said that not long after the signage was posted, Sidhu notified city staff of the deed restrictions, saying they were the reason he had declined to buy the property himself.
“After staff notified the property owner of the deed restrictions, the engineer and architect for the project requested another meeting with staff to discuss the building,” planning staff said, according to city records. “During the discussion, it was brought to our attention that the deed restrictions were a requirement of the City of Longview.”
Patel said he called the previous property owner, who was unopposed to alcohol sales at the location. Their attorneys later worked together and removed the restrictions from the deed.
“We felt like we were good to go,” Patel said, but his engineer learned days before Christmas that the restrictions had been included in zoning.
Since then, he’s asked several local attorneys about the matter, and each of them said the same thing — there was no way he could have known about the zoning restrictions — he said.
“This wasn’t brought to my attention as soon as (the city) found out what was going on,” Patel said.
Ishihara said she’s glad to hear there are plans already in place to improve the city’s research of zoning records.
“I think going back and correcting our recorded information to reflect zoning restrictions such as this is critical,” she said.
Finding a safe spot
Another hang up has been opposition from the president of Applied Consultants, a business whose property adjoins Patel’s. He has raised concerns about increasing traffic and safety.
Patel said his plans address those issues.
At a package store he opened in 2011 in Lone Star, Patel said, parking lot lighting was increased after some customers expressed safety concerns.
“If you put more than the needed lighting out there, it makes everyone feel safe,” he said, “and as you’re walking out of the store, you can see 50 to 75 feet in front of you.”
And, he said, a recently installed privacy fence completely separates his property from Applied Consultants.
That improvement, along with Heritage Wine and Spirits’ proximity and separation from its surrounding neighborhood, mirrors what can be found around package stores in other parts of Longview. He compared it to Harley’s stores on Loop 281, adjacent to the Wildwood residential subdivision, and on Marshall Avenue, in the midst of the medical district.
Patel is questioning whether his location on Eastman Road is being held to a different standard.
“Christus Good Shepherd (Health System) has a parking lot right next door to Harley’s that female nurses meet and have to walk to their cars,” he said. “If we’re that concerned, why aren’t we concerned with these businesses and employees? I think it should be about the same.”
The location is key to his plan’s success, he said.
The 2000 block of North Eastman Road handles more than 22,100 vehicles a day, according to Longview Metropolitan Planning Organization’s most recent traffic count from late 2015. The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the traffic at between 17,000 and 19,000 vehicles a day.
Longview liquor laws
For decades, all alcohol sales in Longview were allowed only in areas south of Hollybrook Drive and Magnolia Lane. That only partially changed in 2013, when voters expanded sales of beer and wine for off-premise consumption to all parts of the city.
However, the new law did not extend to liquor sales.
Liquor stores must be only in areas designated wet, and beyond Hollybrook Drive, the next available spot to sell liquor is Ore City, Patel said.
Harley’s package store near the Wildwood subdivision is in the only property along West Loop 281 where liquor sales are allowed because it’s immediately south of the wet boundary.
Patel has said there are not many available properties in Longview within a wet area and with the zoning necessary to sell liquor.
“In fact, if you want to bring a store of this nature to town and want to be off (U.S.) 80 for obvious reasons,” Patel wrote last week in a comment on Facebook, “then there is only one site … this current site at 2000 N. Eastman. We have spent the last several years looking at sites, so we didn’t just choose this one by chance.”
Council members will hold a second public hearing and consider the request March 23, because the city missed an opportunity to add it to the council’s March 9 meeting agenda.
Ishihara said she hasn’t decided how she will vote.
“I intend to listen to all those that would like to speak on the matter,” she said. “I continue to receive feedback from constituents on the matter and would welcome any interested (residents) to contact me with their thoughts at email@example.com.”
Also opposing Patel’s plans are a few neighbors, including a church congregation, as well as another local developer, Scott Zhorne, who owns the recently renovated building next door that houses Applied Consultants. Zhorne said the zoning restrictions led him to attract Applied Consultants.
Developers covet zoning restrictions more than deed restrictions, Zhorne said.
“I’ve got to know the certainty of the area. Zoning restrictions produce that for us,” Zhorne said. “So just don’t get confused on zoning restrictions and deed restrictions — two separate things. Deed restrictions, you can throw that away. Zoning restrictions, that’s the holy grail.”
Patel is a third-generation spirits retailer and says his family pursues its own “holy grail” — a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission permit.
He received his permit before buying his Eastman Road property, something the state allows so developers can research the property, zoning and project feasibility before investing thousands of dollars into real estate, he said.
“If (developers) can’t mitigate this type of risk, then it makes it really difficult to move forward on projects,” Patel said. “It’s unfortunate that I’<a href="http://www.steltonusa.com/UserProfile/tabid/299/userId/89954/Default.aspx”>m optical longview texas the one that has to go through this, but I have a lot of projects to come in the future … I think it’s easier for me to go through this, even though it’s not easy to go though. An outside developer would have lost their mind by now.”
As for blame, Patel said it’s neither his fault, nor the fault of Choy or Shirley.
“It’s just the way the resolution was filed,” he said. “It got mishandled, and we’re in this situation today.”