Traffic fee could thwart plans for second Chuck’s Produce

Owner seeks reduction in nearly $1 million expense for proposed Hazel Dell store

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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The owner of Vancouver-based Chuck’s Produce and Street Market says he won’t build his planned second store unless Clark County lowers the nearly $1 million fee being assessed for traffic it’s expected to bring.

The traffic impact fee is almost as much as the asking price for the store site on the northeast corner of Northeast Highway 99 and 117th Street, said Bart Colson, Chuck’s founder and co-owner. That would eat up nearly 20 percent of the $5.5 million construction budget for developing the high-end grocery store, scheduled to open by mid-2012.

“That store will be open by this time next year if we get the transportation fee to a more manageable number,” said Colson, in his first interview since opening the first Chuck’s store last year in the former Joe’s sporting goods venue in east Vancouver.

Chuck’s developers are scheduled to meet with the county’s Community Development Department on Thursday.

Colson is also a partner in the Vancouver-based Hawthorn Retirement Group, a private, family-owned business that operates a string of more than 40 senior-living facilities in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.

Having developed a number of the retirement centers, Colson said he is familiar with development fees. He claimed the charges in other parts of the country are lower than in Clark County.

“We’ve built in 49 states and never had an impact fee like that, not even in California,” Colson said.

But the traffic generated by retirement communities is different than that generated by grocery stores.

Transportation engineers analyze the size of a project, its type and location to calculate the fees needed to alleviate traffic congestion, said Jeff Mize, public information outreach manager for the county’s public works department.

The cost would be even higher if the proposed Chuck’s development was located in one of Clark County’s more expensive transportation districts, Mize said. The site is within the Hazel Dell district, in which traffic impact fees are assessed at $450 per trip, which refers to the expected number of vehicle trips the project will generate.

The same development would have cost $656 per trip in the neighboring Mt. Vista district.

Clark County assesses these fees to ensure that development pays for the infrastructure that serves it, Mize said.

“The traffic impact fees are one of several funding sources the county uses to build needed road improvements,” Mize said. “Traffic congestion is a major complaint of residents in virtually every urban area and the Greater Vancouver area is no exception.”

The proposed project location also is in an area where the county hopes to spur development through reduced development fees.

“The county’s traffic impact fee is outrageous,” Colson said.

Mize said developers can submit an independent traffic analysis to reduce a project’s fees.

Chuck’s Hazel Dell site plan calls for a 47,370 square-foot grocery store on the corner of Northwest Highway 99 and 117th Street. The development would include another 14,000-square-feet of separate retail space, although no tenants have signed up for the space, Colson said.

Colson’s said if the traffic fees can’t be reduced, he may rescind his company’s offer to purchase the four-acre tract.

Site selection

Colson said he chose the site based on customer feedback at Chuck’s Produce and Street Market, which opened its east Vancouver store in October.

“It was the area with the highest demand, hands down,” he said. “We have a couple dozen requests every week.”

He isn’t surprised that the store’s produce-focused store model is catching on with local consumers. Colson said he saw the need for an organic produce venue in the area when he moved his family to Vancouver from Salem, Ore., in 2007.

The Colson family was accustomed to buying in-season fruits and vegetables from the farm stands near Salem.

“We could only find one produce store (in Vancouver),” Colson said.

“We tried for a niche that I don’t think anyone else is doing,” said Colson, who opened the first Chuck’s in the former Joe’s store, which he purchased for more than $3 million in late 2009.

A ten-month construction project refurbished the once tired-looking sporting goods store into a produce-focused store complete with an in-store deli with seating, a bakery and butcher shop stocked with locally produced meats.

Portland-based grocer New Seasons has also recognized demand for high-end and organic foods, and plans to open its first east Vancouver store later this year.

Colson said the Hazel Dell store will have similar features to the first Chuck’s, but also branch out to include a larger selection of prepared foods. He expects the new store to employ about 80 people, adding to Chuck’s east-side roster of 88 employees.

Colson said the volume increase of ordering for two stores could help spur price breaks for Chuck’s grocery business.

“The second location will help with the purchasing power,” he said, “But we’ll see a savings in overhead by using the same administrative personnel.”

He named the organic grocery store chain after his late father, although the name “Chuck” was just his nickname, Colson said.

“The store name is kind of a final tribute to our dad,” he said.