Costco's open house Wednesday night in Kensington was a familiar set-up.
Just as it did last April, Costco brought in consultants to stand behind tables and answer community members' questions about the gas station the major retailer wants to build in Wheaton.
Whether Costco will be able to apply for a building permit is a question ultimately for the Montgomery County Board of Appeals. But first the county's Planning Board will weigh Costco's special exception application on Feb. 28, taking into consideration a negative review by the Planning Department.
The Costco store in Wheaton is set to open April 10--after the special exception hearings in March.
Not much seems to have changed since the previous open house, except that Costco has shifted the proposed site a few hundred feet to the east--in response to the County Council's decision last summer to create a buffer zone between large gas stations and community amenities such as pools.
It's difficult to find someone who has not already chosen sides in the controversy. Supporters say they look forward to the convenience of cheap gas near their homes, while opponents say the environmental and health risks are too great.
"I can see why the people who live near it wouldn't want it, but I think it's a real plus for Wheaton and Montgomery County in general," said Kim de Groot, who lives near Newport Middle School, where the open house took place.
Wheaton residents Annette and Christian Laguerre wore "Yes! Costco Gas" stickers at the open house. The Laguerres recently became Costco members and they said they are hoping that the Costco and its gas station improve the quality of the Westfield Wheaton mall. They also said they hope that the lower gas prices at Costco would make prices more competitive at other area gas stations.
Kensington resident Aaron Tucker said he had examined Costco's special exception application materials beforehand and remained unconvinced by Costco's consultants.
"I don't think it's necessary, and I think it's a bad idea," he said. "Despite what people say, there will be effects."
It has been a struggle of more than three years for opponents, but the negative Planning Department report and some recent attention from state legislators seem to have served as encouragement.
"For the first time, I'm somewhat optimistic," said Larry Silverman, an adjunct environmental law professor at Johns Hopkins University. Silverman opposes the proposed gas station as an environmental and health hazard.
He sees Wheaton at the cusp of a growing trend: big-box retailers moving into densely populated urban areas and local governments struggling to determine whether to erect safe buffers. It is, what he calls, "a bridge too far."
"If Costco wins here, it will have national implications," Silverman said. "We're shaping the future."