The format of Wednesday night’s open house surprised some attendees. Instead of a central focus with back-and-forth debate about Costco’s proposed gas station, community members drifted from table to table, asking questions of independent consultants hired by Costco.
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Everything on display in the large meeting room at had already been submitted in Costco’s special exception application, Director of Real Estate Development Erich Brann said. The real difference came in Costco’s opportunity to match experts in traffic, stormwater management, air quality, and landscape architecture with individual community members to address specific concerns.
“The purpose of tonight is to educate,” Brann said. “That’s why it’s set up like an eighth-grade science fair.” Brann added that Costco had “not had good luck” with past presentation-style meetings with the community,
“We wanted to do this on a one-on-one basis,” said Jeff Ishida, vice president of real estate for Costco’s East Coast division.
The mantra repeated by Brann and Costco’s legal counsel, Pat Harris, as they circulated the crowd was that the Costco gas station “will have no adverse effect on the community.”
“That’s the burden that we need to prove,” Harris said.
Costco faced a tough audience.
Larry Silverman, an adjunct professor of environmental law at Johns Hopkins , brought students from his environmental policy and action class to the open house.
“I think the more people learn about this gas station, the less likely it is to be built,” Silverman said. “This is their charm offensive, but it’s going to fall on the facts.”
Viviane Pescov, a Kensington Heights resident for 45 years, said that if the community’s money will be spent shopping at the new Costco, then the corporation should make a gesture toward the community by not pushing the gas station. That’s what she told them at last fall’s community meeting: “I said, ‘Costco, I love your chocolate cake, but please don’t bring your gas station.’”
Challenges Posed by Zoning Text Amendment and Special Exception Process
Earlier this month, Councilmembers Marc Elrich, Valerie Ervin, Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice that, if approved before the Costco gas station gets its building permit, would effectively block construction.
David Glass, who lives in Kensington Heights, is concerned about air quality and environmental hazards.
“I have no doubt that Costco builds good gas stations,” Glass said. “I just don’t think it should be right next to a neighborhood.”
Brann said that the ZTA felt like the county changing the rules toward the end of the game.
“We were told to go through the special exception process, and we’re going through it,” Ishida said. “We really don’t see the need for the ZTA.”
The Kensington Heights Civic Association that Costco recently submitted revised materials for its special exception application without properly notifying all the parties of record in the case. Without enough time to review the materials before the May 17 planning board hearing, KHCA members say they’re at a disadvantage. But Brann says that what Costco submitted was simply its response to comments from Park and Planning, clarifying certain points.
“It wasn’t anything that was a game-changer,” Brann said.
A Minority Sides With Costco
Although the majority of the community persists in opposition, Costco is nonetheless reaching some people. Steve Howard, who lives on Littleford Lane in Kensington Heights, said that the Environmental Protection Agency studies presented by Costco at the open house convinced him.
“I’m sorry, I don’t agree that they shouldn’t have the gas station,” he said. “I don’t see a problem.”
Howard said that he buys all his gas at the Costco in Beltsville, but even if the Wheaton Costco gets its gas station, he will probably continue to fuel up in Beltsville. Why? Beltsville is unionized; Wheaton will not be. Howard said he has gotten to know the people in Beltsville and wants to continue giving them his business.
Fully aware that he is in the minority, Howard said that he tries to be diplomatic when talking with his neighbors.
And not everyone who attended the open house picked a side.
Marian Fryer, who sits on the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee, said that she came to observe. She’s waiting to see how the process will play out and is reserving her opinion either way.
“But I think that it’s important for the community to be concerned about this issue, because of the concern about pollution,” Fryer said.
Community Concerned about Swim Club’s Future
Many of the anxieties expressed by community members at the open house centered on the neighborhood pool, which will be in close proximity to the gas station.
“ is the backbone and the heart of the community,” Pescov said.
Jane Shafritz, a swim club member, said that she likes the fact that Costco is coming, but she’s concerned about the gas station.
“I just don’t want to see anything happen to the pool,” Shafritz said.
Marty Safer, a psychologist and a former president of the swim club, said that he believes the club will go under if Costco constructs the gas station. Even if all the studies show that the gas station does not have an adverse effect, perception is more important than reality.
“You have to deal with what people perceive the risk to be,” he said. “Having the gas station across from the baby pool is going to make it hard to attract new members...Gas pumps and baby pools don’t mix.”
A few Montgomery County residents from outside the Kensington Heights neighborhood came to support the community in its opposition to the gas station.
Maria Fusco, , attended the open house to support Kensington Heights. She used to live on McComas Avenue in that neighborhood.
“What happens in one part of the county can affect other parts of the county too,” Fusco said.
Gail Dalferes is from Parkwood, Kensington. At the open house, she looked at the traffic and gas station studies, but was not impressed. “They sound like bunk to me,” she said. “They put a lot of time and money into these studies, but they seem a little suspect.”
Laura Kervitsky has lived in Kensington Heights for 14 years. She said her two children, ages 11 and 13, spend their summers at the pool, and she’s worried how the gas station could change that. Even though she spent time at the air quality table at the open house, listening to experts talk about modeling air flow, she’s not convinced.
“I think there’s a big unknown with the gas station,” she said. “Things can look one way on paper and can be very different in practicality.”
“Once it’s there, you can’t go back.”