WRAC Discusses Predatory Towing and Costco’s Gas Station Special Exception

Emotions occasionally ran high as two of Wheaton’s most controversial issues were discussed at the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee's May meeting.

In contrast to the , which saw a packed room including three members of the Montgomery County Council and numerous citizens, the May meeting was slightly more subdued, yet the topics discussed – predatory towing and Costco’s gas station special exception request – garnered a similar level of passionate debate and discussion.

Rob Klein, manager of the Redevelopment Program for the Department of General Services, first offered a brief redevelopment report that included updates on Parking Lot 13 (where recent drill tests did not reveal any significant obstructions to construction) and completion by Lowe Enterprises of the sketch plan phase for the “Computer Building” located at 11141 Georgia Avenue.

Klein also announced a Parks & Planning meeting on May 21 about accessory apartments in Montgomery County, a topic that WRAC has and agreed to support via a letter.

Predatory Towing

While acknowledging that predatory towing is a countywide issue, Director Ana Lopez van Balen described the complicated set-up of parking in Wheaton, and how it contributes to the ongoing towing problem in Wheaton’s Central Business District.

Property owners designate specific parking spaces for individual businesses; therefore, customers who patronize a business right next door are technically “walk-offs,” which is grounds for towing. Signage indicating the parking policies is supposed to be on every single spot, as well as at the entrance to the parking area.

The police are supposed to be called prior to a tow, which is supposed to be authorized by the business owner, yet many cars are being towed after business hours. Also, legally, if a vehicle is on the truck’s hook, but has not begun moving, the car owner can retrieve the vehicle for $50.

Many WRAC members shared anecdotal tales of seeing people who are watching others for violations, then reporting the incident to tow truck drivers idling in the area. Van Balen is working to educate businesses and building owners about the actual rules of parking and towing in Wheaton. She also brought in the Office of Consumer Protection to train the Clean and Safe Team to educate the public. Van Balen has also reached out to Congressman Chris Van Hollen—who himself has been towed in Wheaton—for support.

Costco’s Gas Station Special Exception

Tom Martin, who heads up WRAC’s planning and visioning subcommittee, updated the full committee on his group’s discussion about WRAC’s position on Costco’s application for a special exemption to build a fueling station at their Westfield Wheaton site.

Martin described the split nature of his group, and that while the vote was 3-to-1 to not offer any opinion or testimony to the planning board, he also said that he believes that “saying nothing will be perceived as support of the special exception.”

This led to a spirited discussion between several WRAC members, most notably Patrick Naehu, who referred to WRAC’s mission statement, which calls for "a Wheaton that becomes a walkable community through smart growth that is environmentally friendly.” He is not in favor of supporting the gas station, based on his interpretation of the mission statement and the fact that no sizable community associations have spoken out in favor of the special exception, he said. 

Other WRAC members questioned whether the fueling station would have a positive impact of property values, and whether it would attract new development, commercial or residential. Ultimately, Martin made a motion that WRAC vote to stay neutral on the issue, but to write a letter of testimony to the planning board explaining why they are neutral on the issue.

paige rien May 18, 2012 at 12:53 AM
How do you get to be on the WRAC committee? It's too bad the WRAC missed an opportunity to use their voice for good and support the opposition of the COSTCO FUEL DEPOT and stay true to their mission & purpose. MEGA GAS STATION and "walkable neighborhood" are in complete opposition - how they could miss that is beyond me. It's really too bad the WRAC board doesn't have the guts to support the legislation to ban the fuel depot and have a positive impact on Wheaton. "Staying neutral" is awful and ineffectual development and planning policy.
Mr CDT2 May 18, 2012 at 05:12 PM
When customers are ready to walk to Costco and carry their purchases home, then I will believe they are committed to a "walking community." There is a lot of hypocrisy on this issue among drivers who want cheap gas (and the increased traffic that Costco will bring), but they just don't want the gas station it in "their back yard." It's hard for me to comprehend how we can object to having cars parked at the Wheaton Plaza. They do not have their engines running while fueling. The nozzles are equipped with air pollution contols. So, it's OK for lower income, Wheaton residents, to have Sunoco and Free State gas stations well within 1,000 ft. But not on the other side of the tracks, that is, the other side of the mall. So, if opponents want to be consistent in their opposition to the Costco gas station, they should be opposed to any activity that would increase the number of cars at mall. They should be opposed to Costco, not just the gas station. This is a classic NIMBY issue and if the gas station is not permitted it will be an environmental injustice.
paige rien May 18, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Thoughtful comments, Dan. I appreciate the idea that if you oppose a gas station for environmental reasons, you should oppose it anywhere, not just in your backyard. When it come to development that can harm health, this is a NIABY - not in anyone's backyard. A 16-bay fuel depot is not a standard gas station. Its not just about fumes and idling cars, for there will be many, all day long. It's also about the underground environmental degradation, creation of a brownfield, in perpetuity. (once a gas station, always a gas station.) This is very poorly conceived urban planning. I, like others come at this issue because in a country with laws, regulatory bodies and planning policies, I'm happy to say - corporations can't simply "slip in" a commercial entity that local government seems illprepared to understand and properly regulate anywhere they would like. So, not in the backyard of Kenmont Pool, not the backyard of a school of disabled children, not in the literal backyard of residents and families that will share air/sound/ground water with a massive fueling operation - not merely "a gas station." I think the case can be made that Costco is not the best idea for Wheaton, but that ship has already sailed. It will never be Reston Town Center - but choosing something that is better suited for a rest-stop in I-95 is not appropriate. PS, I live in Kens Heights, a neighborhood flanked by Sunoco & Free State gas, so it's not just in Wheaton where the gas flows freely around here.
Annie April 08, 2013 at 04:47 AM
That's a lie !!!! A. Lopez Van Balen did not reach out to Congressman Chris Van Hollen to try to help out citizens & businesses about Predatory/Aggressive/Illegal towing at all !!!! I did and guess what happened ? I did e-mail to Senator Barbara Mikulski first then Congressman Van Hollen and then Councilmember Navaro/Reimer etc. they passed it to Inspector General Edward Blansitt .. I did go by chain of command, I ran it to Joe Callaway 1st but got not much help since Joe came here to office just to correct paycheck and wait for his retirement and so I had to fight the Predatory Towing myself against the whole office because my 2 supervisors were with the towing companies (Ricky's and All About Tow) they got kickback and Rodney got free parking at Dunkin Donuts in exchange of protecting Tow companies. He harassed me when I went to the "red zones" tried to warn citizens (or educated them of where to park and what to do if they got towed etc.) He harassed me by writing me up for disciplinary action tried to fired me from insubordination etc. I e-mailed to Van Balen who's the director but they sticked up together so I went outside to those mentioned above to help but no one can really help or no one cars and at the end I lost my job!!!! I have several witnesses to the case and incidents .. the whole community knew about this too.. so Van Balen is a liar along with all those crooks in the office ..
Annie April 08, 2013 at 04:48 AM
I am not going to let these bad guys get away with murder !!!!


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