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HoCo Planning Board denies gas station zoning request

By Amanda Yeager, ayeager@tribune.com

10:40 AM EST, January 17, 2014

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Citing discomfort with singling out a particular industry to regulate, members of the Howard County Planning Board voted Thursday to deny a request by a group of local gas station owners that would have placed restrictions on where new gas stations in the county could be located.

But they said they wanted the discussion to continue.

"I'm of the opinion that this needs a lot more study," board member Bill Santos said before the three members at the meeting voted unanimously to oppose the amendment. The board's fourth member, Phil Engelke, couldn't attend but sent a letter opposing the request.

The amendment, submitted by the Howard County Independent Business Association, would have changed 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.

Representatives for the HCIBA argued that changing industry norms necessitated an updating of the guidelines for county planners. If bigger chains force small gas stations out of business, they said, the result would be blighted properties that are harder to develop due to environmental and safety concerns.

"As part of the overall planning for any jurisdiction, it is definitely appropriate for this body... to make decisions that pertain to public safety," HCIBA attorney Earl Adams Jr. told the board. "As part of the general plan process, there was an acknowledgment that the gas station industry had changed... All we are proposing is to account for the changes and the differences."

But Sang Oh, the attorney for a group of prospective gas station owners headed by Royal Farms, said creating detailed restrictions about where gas stations can be located was outside the purview of the Planning Board, which normally hears each request on a case-by-case basis.

"I think it's very different on a legislative scale to put down a rule," Oh said. "That's the entire nature of a conditional use."

But as the county moves ahead with redevelopment of Columbia's downtown, some board members expressed concern that shuttered gas stations in the city's village centers could create problems down the road.

"It will just be one more problem they have to overcome," board chair Josh Tzuker said. "A gas station is not like a shoe store going out of business. There are a lot of things that have to be considered."

Though Tzuker voted with Santos and board member Jacqueline Easley to deny the request, he said he would supplement his decision with written comments raising the issue of blight in village centers as well as suggesting that new gas stations be located closer to interstate exits, to accommodate travelers stopping for fuel.

The County Council will vote on the request next.