Depending on which side was talking, a bill defeated by the Harford County Council Tuesday evening was either an environmental necessity or the first step down the road to building more gas stations in rural areas of Harford County.
In the end, the council's 5-2 defeat of Bill 11-48 probably didn't settle anything, as its two sponsors, and several of their colleagues who voted against the measure, said the county must still take steps to deal with what was frequently referred to Tuesday as "a ticking time bomb."
Following the contamination of dozens of residential wells in the Upper Cross Roads of Fallston from the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, Harford County in 2005 banned the construction of new gas stations in areas of the county not served by public water.
The ban has been considered the toughest of its kind in the state. A council task force reviewed it two years ago and recommended it remain intact, but there have been ongoing behind-the-scenes efforts to lessen its impact, most of them coming from the convenience store industry, according to several county government sources.
Bill 11-48, sponsored by councilmen Jim McMahan and Richard Slutzky, would not have permitted the construction of any new gas stations or the significant expansion of any existing ones, the sponsors insisted through an hour of public hearing testimony prior to Tuesday's vote on the legislation.
All the bill would do, they said, would be to provide an incentive for the owners of existing stations to upgrade their tanks, piping and other equipment for fuel storage and dispensing to better protect the surrounding environment.
Slutzky, who called the bill "a responsible environmental matter" and "a people-first health and safety matter," said state-of-art equipment that meets the latest federal safety standards needs to be installed in most of the gas stations that were in existence at the time of the 2005 ban and became non-conforming zoning uses as a result.
Those stations, he said, can't be upgraded in many cases because of their nonconformity, unless the owners go through an arduous review through the zoning board of appeals process that ultimately ends with the county council as the final zoning authority.
Large area involved
Slutzky said there are at least 16 such gas stations in operation that exist in a large swath of the county that runs from Joppa near I-95 though Fallston and from across the county's northern tier from the Norrisville area to Darlington, dipping back south to Churchville and the greater Aberdeen area.
Some of the stations have equipment dating to the 1950s and 1960s, he said, and even the newest went into operation before the federal government imposed new safety and leak control standards for equipment in 2005.
One or two of the stations have voluntarily upgraded their equipment to current standards - the cost runs to several hundred thousand dollars - Slutzky said, but most won't consider such an expensive undertaking, he said, under the strictures of the current law.
McMahan said the county has no legal authority to force the upgrades. According to the bill, an existing station that wanted to upgrade could do the work and make other improvements without going through the board of appeals process, so long as the square footage of the facilities or the existing number of fuel pumps would not be increased by more than 49 percent. If the expansion exceeded that limit - or went beyond the existing lot - it would still be subject to the board of appeals process.
A list McMahan furnished The Aegis Thursday contains the addresses for 20 properties, two of which have stopped selling gasoline. The status of two others in the 20001 Aberdeen area ZIP Code couldn't be immediately verified. McMahan also said he believes the county government has at least four fuel depots that fall under the controls set up by the 2005 law.
Of the 16 properties on the list that are known to be in operation, seven are High's convenience stores, four are Royal Farms, two are Wawas and one is a 7-Eleven. Two, one at Campus Hills Shopping Center, and the other at Route 1 and Connolly Road in Fallston, are independents. McMahan noted that the latter station has access to public water service, but residential properties behind it do not, and the current law requires that all properties adjacent to a service station have public water service.
No more pumps
At one point during Tuesday's discussion, McMahan said "expand is a poor choice of words" to explain what the bill was trying to accomplish. "Somebody might expand their bread and milk store, but we aren't talking about more gas pumps," he said. McMahan and Slutzky also said the change they proposed would not allow a station that had gone out of business since 2005 to come back to life - the bill made it clear the station had to have been in continuous operation to be covered.
Of the eight people who spoke during the public hearing, seven opposed the bill, most of them pointing out the current law does not bar the existing stations from expanding or installing the most up-to-date equipment, but only requires them to submit any such proposals where they can be scrutinized by the public and be subject to actions by elected officials - the county council members.
"Fuel stations can freely upgrade" under the current law, Beth Sheir, of Fallston, told the council, while pointing out that once a well is contaminated by gasoline, "there's no getting [it] out." The bill, she added, "takes away oversight and community input."
Also speaking against the bill were representatives of the Greater Fallston Association, the group that took the lead in getting the 2005 law passed, and Friends of Harford, an environmental advocacy group.
Lawyer Jay Young, who practices in Bel Air and lives in Monkton, said he represents Royal Farms and said he advocated for the bill that was presented Tuesday. Like the sponsors, Young said the bill was an environmental measure essential to the county's well being, one necessary to deal with unintended consequences from the 2005 law.
The aging tanks and piping at existing stations present "a very, very serious problem …a ticking time bomb," Young said, adding the purpose of the bill was to prevent leaks of gasoline into wells, "not bringing new stations into the county." He added that the cost of installing a state-of-the art fuel delivery system is $500,000 to $700,000, although Slutzky later said he heard those costs run in the $250,000 to $400,000 range.
When the bill was finally voted on, only the sponsors, McMahan and Slutzky, voted for it. An obviously disappointed Slutzky groused that the opposition to the bill was not environmental, but political, "and I get that."
Though she voted against the bill, Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said the potential for environmental damage from the existing gas stations remains. She questioned, however, how the bill before the council Tuesday would have forced the needed changes.
McMahan was philosophical about the bill's defeat.
"This problem isn't go away any time soon, I can guarantee you," he said Thursday. "We just haven't found a way to fix it."