Nearly 30 people testified at Tuesday’s public hearing on a zoning text amendment that would place greater restrictions on where gas stations that dispense more than 3.6 million gallons can be built in Montgomery County. Almost everyone who testified before the Montgomery County Council mentioned Costco, which is at the center of this controversial legislation.
Lining up against Costco are the Kensington Heights Civic Association and its allies, who see the proposed Costco gas station at Westfield Wheaton as a health threat to their adjacent neighborhood, with its community pool and school for children with disabilities.
Check it out: Wheaton Patch has created a page where you can see all of our Costco gas station coverage in reverse chronological order.
Costco’s progress through the special exception process came to a grinding halt last month, and if the council approves the zoning rule change, Costco will not be able to build its gas station.
Councilmember Marc Elrich introduced ZTA 12-07 in April, and councilmembers Valerie Ervin, Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice and Hans Riemer have signed on as co-sponsors. The ZTA would prohibit gas stations that dispense more than 3.6 million gallons from sites within 1,000 feet of "any public or private school, or any park, playground, or hospital, or other public use, or any use categorized as a cultural, entertainment and recreation use.”
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At the public hearing, those supporting the ZTA asked the council to consider how the growth of “mega” gas stations should change the way local government regulates them; the current regulations were designed for smaller gas stations, they said, not ones that will dispense 12 million gallons, which is the amount projected for the proposed Costco gas station. That would make it the largest gas station in Montgomery County.
Jim Humphrey, representing the Montgomery County Civic Federation, asked the council to “err on the side of caution” and adopt new standards.
Opponents countered that the county is unfairly targeting the legislation at Costco--which was nearing the end of the county-established procedures for building the gas station--and that this will only add to Montgomery County’s anti-business reputation.
Several councilmembers were quick to defend themselves. Ervin noted that council staff is currently working on a memo outlining the council’s support of businesses over the past few years, to the tune of more than $600 million. Navarro pointed out that the council gave a $4 million subsidy to Westfield to bring the Costco store to Wheaton in the first place.
The first to testify at the public hearing was Gregory Russ, representing the planning board. When ZTA 12-07 came before the board on June 7, Chair Françoise Carrier tried unsuccessfully to direct the testimony away from Costco’s special exception case. In the end, the board could not reach a majority opinion.
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When the testimony was tallied, 15 people spoke against the ZTA and 13 spoke in favor. However, some individuals spoke as representatives of larger groups, such as the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce and the Kenmont Swim and Tennis Club.
Both sides brought environmental experts to the table: Larry Silverman and Henry Cole testified in support of the ZTA, warning that if the county licenses and permits “mega” gas stations the same way as they do “old-fashioned” gas stations, county residents’ health and quality of life will suffer. "You're asking this particular community to take an enormous risk,” said Cole, who formerly worked with air quality models as a senior scientist at the EPA.
But Ken Chase of Washington Occupational Health Associates and David Sullivan (who conducted the air quality studies for Costco’s special exception application) disagreed. They characterized the current standards as “very stringent” and labeled any risk as “essentially negligible.”
The council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to hold a worksession for ZTA 12-07 on July 9.