The first phase of a study of eight of Columbia's village centers, commissioned by the Columbia Association in partnership with Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning and the Howard County Economic Development Authority and released in March, suggested village centers were moving away from the old grocery-store-anchored model and could instead benefit from additional restaurants.

Today, as gas stations nationwide increasingly move toward expanding their retail offerings, businesses like Levitan's could be left in the dust.

Unlike a restaurant or shoe store that goes out of business, a shuttered gas station has its own set of health and environmental factors to consider before it can be redeveloped.

Some gas station sites are restricted by covenants placed on the property by large gas companies that allow them to control what happens to the land even after the gas station is gone.


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When those factors combine, the result can be blight.

The most evident example of this outcome is in the Oakland Mills Village Center, where a former gas station lot has sat vacant for nearly 15 years. Project proposals for a four-story office building and a 96-unit apartment building on the site fell through, though just recently, a new group has pitched the idea of opening a Dunkin' Donuts and gas station on the site.

Concerns about the viability of smaller gas stations were the impetus for a zoning regulation amendment proposed by the HCIBA earlier this year that sought to change county zoning regulations to require proof of "reasonable public need" for any new gas stations in the county.

New gas station structures would have also been required to keep a distance of at least 1,000 feet from schools, parks, playgrounds, daycare centers and environmentally sensitive areas. Currently, the setback for gas stations is 30 feet.

But when the ZRA came before the Planning Board in mid-January, board members denied the request, saying they were uncomfortable with singling out a particular industry to regulate.

Another group of business owners, led by representatives of Royal Farms, which hopes to build a new gas station along Snowden River Parkway, had protested the proposed needs test, arguing it was a protectionist measure that would deter new businesses from entering the market.

The group released a study that showed Howard County has some of the Baltimore region's highest gas prices. With increased competition, they said, prices would drop.

Levitan rejects that assertion.

"We're the most competitive industry in the world," he said. "Our pricelines are right on the street."

But some of HCIBA's members have argued that new gas station proposals, such as the one for Royal Farms, will have an unfair advantage.

They say that Royal Farms' proposal for a 10-pump gas station and 3,500-square-foot convenience store directly on Snowden River Parkway violates the district's underlying zoning.

The site is zoned New Town – Employment Center Industrial, according to the county, and is regulated by a final development plan that permits gas stations as a conditional use.

But Chris Alleva, a representative for the HCIBA, said the plan does not allow for retail on the site. The proposal also shows an entry point for the station directly from Snowden River Parkway, which would be a first along the road.

According to David Boellner, a planner for DPZ who is working on the Royal Farms project, developments along Snowden River Parkway normally have to gain access from lower-traffic roads – in this case, Minstrel Way.

Boellner said an exception would have to be approved by the Planning Board before Royal Farms would be allowed to have access to the parkway.

Representatives from Royal Farms declined to comment for this story.

DPZ Director Marsha McLaughlin said it was outside her department's purview to factor competition into new gas station requests.

"Do you lean in favor of supporting existing businesses or encouraging competition, which normally we would do in other sectors?" she said.

But, McLaughlin added, "I completely understand why Councilman Ball and the council decided that having a task force to debate on the pros and cons [of new regulations] would be helpful for them," she said.

Levitan and the HCIBA are optimistic about the new task force.

"This is an issue that, frankly, just has not been studied and it needs to be studied in a very comprehensive and focused way," said Earl Adams Jr., a lawyer for the HCIBA.

"We're really happy that the County Council has... decided to create a task force to study issues in this industry, because they are complicated," Levitan said.