By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — What was once one of the nation's first Coca-Cola bottling plants on South Broadway could soon become a car dealership.
But another used car dealership only 1,500 feet away, Toy Store Auto Sales, could nix plans for the 92-year-old building, which has stood vacant for years.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment has been asked to grant a variance to Metscott 21 LLC of Haverhill, Mass. The board will consider the request at its meeting Nov. 5, town planning director Ross Moldoff said.
Property owner Joseph Scott said yesterday he plans to renovate the approximately 70,000-square-foot building so he could sell it to a prospective car dealership.
Although there are no dealerships waiting to purchase the property, Scott said he was approached by a few interested in the site in the past. Otherwise, Scott said, he would have to consider selling the property for other retail uses.
A car dealership is preferred because it would generate less traffic on heavily congested South Broadway, Scott said. Planning officials have expressed concern about generating more traffic in that area.
Scott has said town planning officials thwarted efforts to use the site, making it difficult to sell or develop the property.
"I'm going to try to renovate the existing building," Scott said yesterday. "I just can't keep paying taxes on it and let it sit there."
He said he has paid thousands of dollars in property taxes and permit fees over the last seven years.
Scott said he plans to raze about 10,000 square feet of an older section of the building. He is optimistic he can obtain the variance needed for a dealership. The project would then need site plan approval from the Planning Board, Moldoff said.
The Coca-Cola plant was built in 1921 and operated at the site for decades, but the popular beverage hasn’t been bottled there for years.
A longtime town ordinance prohibits used car dealerships from being within 2,000 feet each of other, Moldoff said. There were concerns years ago there would be too many used car dealerships along the busy commercial strip, he said.
The ordinance does not apply to dealerships that sell new vehicles, Moldoff said. The property is in a commercial industrial district. The owner of Toy Auto Sales, Mike Chandler, could not be reached yesterday for comment.
This would be just one of several projects planned at 23 S. Broadway in recent years. Those proposals were either rejected by town boards or abandoned because of various planning obstacles, according to Scott.
Two months ago, Scott said, he gave up on plans to develop the site after he and business partner Dennis Metayer were told by Planning Board members in 2011 that a proposed 91,800-square-foot construction and demolition recycling center was not an ideal use for the site.
“The town of Salem is extremely difficult to deal with,” he said. “I just want out of Salem.”
Scott and Metayer purchased the property in January 2006 for $3.6 million. The property is now assessed at $2.4 million, most of that for the 5 acres of land.
Shortly after the purchase, they proposed razing the building to build a pharmacy, restaurant and bread company, but dropped the plans. A year later, they considered razing just the plant’s additions, which were about 20 years old at the time. Some planning officials opposed razing the building, Scott said.
After several appearances before the Planning Board, a proposal for a shopping plaza was approved by the board in January 2009. But before final approval was received, prospective tenants said they were no longer interested and the project was abandoned.