The Montgomery County Council passed stricter regulations for "mega" gas stations yesterday, but how exactly those changes will affect Costco’s plans for a gas station at Westfield Wheaton remains to be seen.
Zoning Text Amendment 12-07, which received unanimous approval, requires a 300-foot buffer separating gas stations that dispense more than 3.6 million gallons a year from schools, parks, playgrounds, day care centers and other outdoor facilities. The Costco gas station is projected to pump 12 million gallons a year.
Jeff Ishida, vice president of real estate for Costco’s East Coast Division, said that Costco’s special exception application “does not comply with the ZTA as approved,” and that Costco will need to re-submit its paperwork to the Board of Appeals after doing more measurements on the site.
Councilmember Elrich, who amended the ZTA at the last minute to reduce the buffer from 1,000 feet to 300 feet, said afterward that he deliberately did not look at a map of the Costco gas station site plans in Wheaton to see if they would comply.
“I didn’t want to know,” Elrich said.
The original 1,000-foot buffer proposed by the ZTA took the gas station pumps as its starting point. Elrich said that this no longer made sense to him once he better understood the problem of exhaust from queuing cars. But instead of making guesses on how many cars would form the queue, Elrich said he wanted to pick a reasonable boundary that would win him five votes: the edge of the special exception zone.
Some see Tuesday’s vote as a positive step, even though they would have preferred the 1,000-foot buffer.
“It’s a win for environmental science in Montgomery County,” said Larry Silverman, who teaches environmental law at Johns Hopkins University and has advised the Kensington Heights Civic Association in their struggle against Costco.
“It gives the Board of Appeals a minimum gateway,” said Virginia Sheard, a Kensington resident. “It is a tool that can be implemented.”
Others perceive the political compromise as a missed opportunity.
“I’m disappointed because I believe 1,000 feet is more protective of both the residents and the environment,” said Diane Cameron of the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase.
Ishida said he thought it unlikely that the gas station will make it through the special exception process by October, which is when the warehouse will open at Westfield Wheaton.
If Costco cannot fit its gas station into the spot it has already proposed, near the Kensington Heights neighborhood, then Ishida said he does not see many other options on Westfield’s property.
The Board of Appeals still has the option to require greater buffer zones on a site-by-site basis when it reviews each special exception application.
But the 300-foot buffer is now a threshold, as it is in Prince George's County.
"It is not perfect," Elrich said. "It is not as much as I would have liked."
But the compromise won him all nine votes, even those of the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee members who had earlier determined that the special exception process was the proper avenue for restricting gas stations.
Councilmembers Nancy Navarro, Valerie Ervin, Hans Riemer and Elrich supported the 1,000-foot buffer.
Check it out: Wheaton Patch has created a page where you can see all our Costco gas station coverage in reverse chronological order.