Howard gas station owners grapple with a changing market

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Rick Levitan stands in front of the Shell gas station he owns in the Owen Brown Village Center on Saturday, April 12. He's concerned about his business if Howard County doesn't update regulations.

When Rick Levitan opened his two gas stations in close succession about 15 years ago, he didn't know what the future would bring.

When he started his business in 1999, Levitan reflects, "nobody knew what a hybrid was."


Today, car manufacturers are producing more hybrids than ever – with one late 2012 study predicting that global hybrid sales will reach 3.8 million a year by 2020.

Even non-hybrids offer vastly improved gas mileage, decreasing demand for fuel: a 2013 University of Michigan study reported that cars sold in August 2013 averaged 24.9 miles per gallon, an increase of nearly 5 miles per gallon over the 20.1 mpg average fuel economy of cars sold in October 2007.


And in the past decade, grocery businesses have entered the gas market, using fuel as a loss leader to draw customers into their stores.

By all accounts, the gas station industry is in flux.

Levitan, along with other local gas station owners united under the banner of the Howard County Independent Business Association, thinks the county's regulations need to be updated to keep pace.

A new resolution before the Howard County Council would address those concerns.

Introduced by Council Chair Calvin Ball, a Democrat who represents east Columbia, where several of the HCIBA's members own gas stations, the resolution would create a task force to study and recommend standards for situating future gas stations in the county.

The task force would be made up of 10 members from local business, environmental and community groups, including representatives from the county's Economic Development Authority, Chamber of Commerce, Sierra Club chapter and two members each from the Columbia village boards and the gas station industry.

Ball said the task force would allow for "a more comprehensive re-examination of the issues" facing today's gas stations. He said he decided to submit the resolution after hearing from concerned citizens and business owners.

At the heart of their calls for new regulations lie broader questions about the fate of gas stations in Columbia's village centers.


Levitan's two Shell stations are located in the village centers of Owen Brown, off of Cradlerock Way, and Dorsey's Search, near the intersection of Clarksville Pike and Route 29.

Village center business owners have a unique combination of circumstances and play by a different set of rules, he said.

"Being in the village centers, you have very limited traffic count," Levitan said. "Nobody knows where you are, except for the blue county signs that have a gas pump with an arrow."

And, he pointed out, the original concept of the village centers was to provide Columbia's communities with a full range of amenities, with little overlap between businesses.

"They didn't want you to compete with other services that were in the village center," he said. In the case of the village center's gas stations, Levitan added, the result was service stations that offered gas, car washes and car repairs, but didn't have anything more than a small convenience store, so as not to compete with the village center's supermarket anchor.

Planning Board member and local architect Phil Engelke said the old tried-and-true model for shopping centers has shifted today.


"It used to be sort of a formula," he said. "You put your supermarket in there, a gas station, drug store and there you go."

Now, "People are now thinking about where is this going, how is our community evolving, what would work, what would we like to see?" he said. "I think it's interesting that it's not just is it a gas station or is it a pizza place, it's really where is the market going, what works well with the demographic of your community?"

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.


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.

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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.