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Planning Board favors placing some limits on gas stations

Planning Board members voted Dec. 10 to recommend adoption of some of the recommendations made by a county task force on fueling stations, including minimum frontage and setback standards, while rejecting others, such as a needs assessment for future station proposals.

The task force's report, commissioned by the County Council last year, looked at ways to reduce blight and environmental, health and safety impacts as higher volume gas stations, run by companies such as Wawa, Royal Farms and Sheetz, seek to enter the Howard County market.

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Task force members argued the needs assessment would help "determine whether a fueling station is necessary," but a majority of the Planning Board disagreed.

"I think that anybody who wants to start a business does put a business plan together, and then takes on the risk and goes into the marketplace," said member Tudy Adler, who voted to reject the recommendation. "I think we just have to accept the possibility that businesses fail."

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Adler was joined by board members Phil Engelke and Bill Santos in voting against the needs assessment, while members Erica Roberts and Jacqueline Santos voted to maintain the recommendation.

Another point of contention was how much distance should be required between a high-volume gas station and sensitive sites, such as schools, playgrounds, senior centers and wetlands.

The task force recommended locating sensitive sites at a distance of 500 feet from all new high-volume stations, but in its analysis, the county's planning department said the requirement was too strict and recommended reducing the distance to 200 feet. Task force members told the Planning Board that 200 feet didn't go far enough.

"I'm very disappointed in their proposed revisions, which severely undermine our recommendations that we submitted," said Dick King, chair of the task force, whose members included gas industry experts, environmentalists, business people and engineers. "We studied this very hard."

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Planning Board members were torn on the setback.

"There are a lot of gas stations that are right next to senior centers and recreational areas already, and that's just our reality," said Santos. "I agree that we're going to see some incremental health benefit [from siting stations 500 feet from sensitive areas], but it's not based on anything, it's extrapolated. Which I think is two steps out on the ice. [The distance is] not based on an actual study, it's based on a risk assessment."

The board voted to require a setback of 300 feet between large new stations and schools, parks, playgrounds and senior centers. Members decided that distance from environmentally sensitive areas should be determined by environmental regulations, not zoning law.

The board also voted to require 180 feet of frontage for gas stations along a public road, a minimum lot size of 40,000 square feet and a queuing management plan for larger stations, but rejected a recommendation that large stations be located near busy interchanges.

Board members deferred a determination of what constitutes a high-volume station to the County Council, which will next take up the recommendations and decide whether to vote them into zoning law.

Mosque's appeal dismissed

A Muslim congregation hoping to establish a school and religious center in western Howard County faced a setback Dec. 9 when the county's Board of Appeals voted to dismiss its case for lack of standing.

Dar-us-Salaam, which is based in College Park, has been trying for years to win conditional use approval to build the school, a mosque, daycare center and residences for its staff on 65 acres of land in Cooksville, to accommodate its growing 800-family community. The proposal has faced opposition from local residents, who argue it would be too intense a use for their rural neighborhood.

The county's hearing examiner granted Dar-us-Salaam's request last year, but imposed a strict set of conditions – including a ban on amplified outdoor sound and a requirement to reduce activity at the center during the week of the Howard County fair, held nearby – that the congregation elected to appeal.

But Board of Appeals members voted against hearing the case after it was pointed out that the congregation does not own the land or have an agreement to buy it.

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