Business is booming for Sunset Chevrolet in Sumner, and its longtime neighbors say their homes and quality of life are threatened by the boom.
What makes it worse, they say, is that Sumner city code allows the dealership to advance its growth plans with little chance for residents to be heard.
Sunset has operated in the city for 94 years. Its representatives say it has the highest volume of Chevy car sales statewide on a lot less than half the size of comparable dealerships.
Owner Phil Mitchell said Sunset needs more land to serve customers and meet standards set by General Motors Co. He said he tries to be a good neighbor, and he notes that his business consistently gives back to Sumner, from cancer walks to renovating the high school stadium whose name the dealership owns.
“We are just active in the community, and I think that’s part of why we are still here,” Mitchell said.
But nearby homeowners say Sunset for years has hogged street parking, created unwanted noise and disrespected families that have lived there for decades.
Now, they say, that disrespect has gone a step further.
Last month, the consulting firm Conley & Associates wrote a letter on behalf of Sunset urging four adjacent property owners to sell their homes — the latest in a string of attempts to acquire those properties over a span of about three years.
“Sunset Chevrolet is prepared to offer and pay you more for your property than you would ever get from anyone else,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by The News Tribune.
“Most people will not willingly buy, move in, and live next door to a business with up to 150 employees and roughly 1,500-2,000 visitors (customers) every month,” the letter reads.
The letter says the dealership plans to begin expanding this fall for the second time in less than five years. It says neighbors can expect more noise, light and activity.
“You will be tens of thousands of dollars ahead of your situation … by simply working with us. Or, (unfortunately) you can watch us expand around you … as your home value plummets to residential buyers,” the letter says.
Homeowner Tammy Ponce said she and the other neighbors are “stubborn.” She said nobody has budged on the sought-after properties, and she doesn’t expect them to.
They are backed by more than 30 other property owners pushing for the city to require more public involvement if Sunset wants to keep growing.
“We’re going to do what the city won’t do — stop the progression,” Ponce said.
NEIGHBORS UNDER SIEGE
Mitchell said he’s comfortable with the letter that was sent to adjacent property owners on his dealership’s behalf.
But Ponce and her husband, Don Coop, said the inquiry was condescending and threatening.
“What made them think we were going to take money, fall over and walk away?” she asked.
The couple spent thousands of dollars remodeling their home about seven years ago, on property Ponce has owned since 1978. Their fence touches property that Sunset Chevrolet acquired earlier this year, used for a marketing office and employee parking.
The couple had a different vision of the neighborhood’s future when they invested all that money, Ponce said, before the dealership started its last expansion, in 2010.
“It’s not what we thought it would be,” she said.
Ponce and Coop say there have been ongoing problems with noise from car alarms and the dealership’s public address system at all hours of the day. Coop says you can hear pages for salesmen a half-mile away.
About 16 cars park in the now-gravel lot next to the couple’s fence every day, and starting at 6 a.m. they wake up to the sounds of automated car locks. They have never filed official noise complaints with the city, but they say they’ve regularly voiced concerns to Sunset’s site manager.
These and other problems, plus the “disrespectful” letter, have left neighbors up in arms, Ponce said.
Residents say fighting employees for limited parking is another problem.
Minda Starr is the only neighbor on West Main directly next to the car lot without a driveway. She has a permit to park in the three-hour street parking zone, but she says she often loses her spot when she goes to the store.
With her health problems, she said it’s tough to park far from home.
“I’m getting old,” said Starr, who has lived there more than 20 years. “Where am I going to park with all my groceries?”
Richard Oswood, Ponce’s neighbor, doesn’t own any of the properties Sunset wants to buy, but he said it affects all homeowners in the area.
Rather than faulting the dealership, he blames the city for allowing a business to get away with taking over a neighborhood.
“I blame the city of Sumner for short-sightedness,” said Oswood, whose family has owned the property since 1955.
APPEALING TO THE CITY
Oswood, with support from three dozen other residents, responded to Sunset’s letter and subsequent expansion effort by trying to amend the area’s zoning. The residents say it currently allows unchecked growth in the neighborhood.
In 2010, Sunset Chevrolet applied with the city to expand. Mitchell said that phase is nearing completion.
After discussions with the dealership, the Sumner City Council in 2011 approved adding existing car dealerships to a list of businesses and other uses already allowed within the residential zone. The list includes adult family homes, cottage housing and retirement homes.
That change allowed the city to grant outright permits to Sunset without a public process.
Cindy Johnson, an attorney representing Oswood, said Sunset can now make expansion plans with no notice to neighbors, no public hearings and no limitations to current or future growth.
That’s why the neighbors have applied with the city Planning Commission to amend the zoning. Johnson said it would force the dealership to go through a public vetting to obtain new permits in the future.
Paul Rogerson, Sumner’s community development director, said city staff recommends the city consider the changes requested by the residents.
At an Aug. 1 public hearing on the residents’ proposal, city planning manager Ryan Windish said any changes would apply only to future permit applications; it would not affect any dealership expansion already underway.
Ponce said she thinks the city’s overall response to residents’ complaints has been mixed. If anything, she thinks the city favors business interests over citizens.
“They don’t care about us little guys,” she said.
Rogerson said officials are working to strike a balance.
“It appears that we may not have achieved the balance yet, but it clearly is the goal,” he said.
The Planning Commission has postponed the issue for now.
SUNSET’S OWN CHALLENGES
Mitchell has owned Sunset Chevrolet since 2010. He said the dealership faces a space and parking crunch as it continues to grow.
Dealerships that support such a high sales volume usually operate on a 10-acre parcel, he said. Sunset is on about 3ß acres.
“Our business just exploded on us,” he said. “(General Motors) wanted the improvements done, and we did them.”
The new expansion wouldn’t include any construction projects, Mitchell said. Any land secured would be used for parking, he said; some houses likely would be demolished. Mitchell said he’s negotiating a deal on another property, separate from the four parcels mentioned in the letter.
With no parking on the car lot for 150 employees and thousands of customers serviced each month, Mitchell said Sunset has had to improvise. The Old Cannery Furniture Warehouse offered about 50 parking spaces. The dealership also has the gravel lot adjoining Ponce’s property. And there’s nearby public street parking, also used by Sounder commuters.
Residents upset about the expansion have suggested Sunset move elsewhere, but Mitchell said there’s little land available in Sumner.
“Anything I can do within reason to help out people that live behind us, I will do,” he said. “I try to be a good neighbor.”
Sunset explored a pair of land parcels off state Route 410 — one where WinCo grocery is located, another near the Honda and Ford dealerships — but Mitchell said they didn’t meet the needs of his business.
Requirements from GM also restrict Sunset’s movements to prevent close proximity to other Chevy dealerships.
Ultimately, Mitchell points out, the expansion won’t occur if residents spurn the dealership’s inquiries.
“This is a free country,” Mitchell said. “If they don’t want to sell their properties, they don’t have to.”