No majority opinion emerged from Thursday’s meeting of the Montgomery County Planning Board about whether gas stations should continue to be regulated through the special exception process, or whether the emergence of “mega” gas stations calls for a reexamination of the rules.
The contentious agenda item was a zoning text amendment that would prohibit the construction of gas stations that dispense more than 3.6 million gallons annually 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.”
Of the four commissioners at the meeting, Norman Dreyfuss and Amy Presley voted together to tell the county council that the board does not recommend ZTA 12-07 for approval but that it will be investigating the need for redefining the differences between gas station size and type in the county's zoning code.
Board Chair Françoise Carrier wanted to recommend that the council shorten the proposed 1,000-foot buffer to 300 feet, but she could not get the support of Commissioner Casey Anderson, who unsuccessfully held out for his own minority opinion: prohibiting large gas stations in close proximity to Metro stations.
Although ZTA 12-07 never mentions any specific gas station, the rule change would block the proposed 16-pump Costco gas station at Westfield Wheaton. This would be the largest gas station in Montgomery County, dispensing an estimated 12 million gallons per year.
“This is not Costco legislation. We have to keep that in mind,” planner Gregory Russ, who prepared a memo arguing against ZTA 12-07, told the board.
But arguments for and against Costco’s special exception case crowded out discussion of the ZTA despite efforts by Carrier to keep the testimony on track. When Costco presented more than 5,000 postcards sent in by members in support of the gas station, Carrier cut off the woman reading them aloud to ask, “Are any of these actually about the ZTA?”
But in the end, Costco took the board’s fractured decision as a good sign for their case.
“We’re pleased that they recognized that there was never any environmental evidence put forth that proves that there is an issue, so the board is very perplexed because they really didn’t have anything to stand on as far as making a decision,” said Erich Brann, Costco’s director of real estate development.
But with no accurate assessment available of health and environmental impacts at large gas stations compared to small gas stations, what the two sides have reached is a stalemate, said Larry Silverman, a Johns Hopkins adjunct environmental law professor who stands with the Kensington Heights Civic Association and other Costco gas station opponents. And what the county needs to do next is get its own environmental health experts involved, he added.
“It’s clear people don’t know enough to open doors to this major change: the advent of mega gas stations,” Silverman said, after testifying before the board about EPA standards. “While we’re all learning, maybe there should be a moratorium, which is what the ZTA essentially is.”
ZTA 12-07 is scheduled to come before the county council for a public hearing June 19. The bill was introduced in April by Councilmember Marc Elrich, who gave testimony at Thursday’s planning board meeting. He is supported by councilmembers Nancy Navarro, Valerie Ervin, Hans Riemer and Craig Rice.