Proposal to regulate Howard County fueling stations aims to address 'outdated' policies

Ball proposes 'imperfect solution' for fueling gas station issue.

A measure before the Howard County Council could change how new fueling stations are integrated in the county.

The proposal regulates new fueling stations and attempts to create consistent regulations that keep up to pace with the changing market for motor fuels.

The measure is part of an overall debate in the county on how to fit gas stations within the environment and surrounding communities without restricting future competition and interfering with changing market forces.

Gas prices in Howard County are among the highest in the Baltimore area. Limited competition fuels prices in the county where there are fewer stations than other parts of the state, according to a 2014 study by Towson University.

Recently, high-volume gas stations with large convenience stores like Royal Farms and Wawa have cropped up throughout the county, affronting the traditional model of smaller gas stations.

The measure, before the council for consideration this month, requires stations to be at least 300 feet from places like schools and parks, increases the distance of stations from public roads, doubles the minimum size of stations to the modern model of 40,000 square feet and expands the definition of gas stations to include all motor vehicle fueling facilities.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, who introduced the measure, conceded the bill is an "imperfect solution."

"What we've tried to do is bring all the parties together so that we can have a solution that takes into account all of the issues and concerns," said Ball. "There will always be competition for consumers, but I think we also have to take into account the quality of life of residents."

The measure before the council is based in part on recommendations by a 10-member task force last year. The group included petroleum industry experts, environmentalists, business representatives and community members.

In December, planning board members said the plans could protect the market for existing businesses and limit competition.

The measure requires a minimum 100-foot setback between stations and streams, river and floodplains, a requirement Meagan Braganca, a member of the task force, said does little to address environmental concerns posed by underground fuel tank spills.

"Once gasoline is spilled into a waterway and it kills a lot of things in that ecosystem, it's devastating," said Braganca, chair of the county's Sierra Club. "Studies show 100 feet doesn't do much. In fact, I don't even know where they came up with the 100 feet."

Montgomery County recently passed a measure to require a minimum 500-foot boundary.

Critics said the regulations could reduce competition and fuel higher gas prices in Columbia, which already has some of the highest gas prices in the state. The measure requires a minimum 1,000-foot distance between new gas stations to avoid blighting only in New Town, a zone that covers Columbia.

At a work session, Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said she was concerned why Columbia was singled out.

Planners designed Columbia so that gas stations served independent village centers, but restricted retail space to competition with grocery stores. The task force originally recommended 2,500-foot distances for new fueling stations across the county.

"When we started out, the request came into us to look at this because we had different regulations for different areas of the county .... we have just set up a very different regulation for Columbia than for any other part of the county," Sigaty said.

This buffer could protect high prices charged by some gas stations, said Erich Brann, real estate director of Costco Wholesale. The distance could prevent customers from comparing prices of different stations.

"It is already near impossible to open or expand a fueling station in Howard County. Why make it harder?" Brann said.

But supporters say the distance requirement will result in better community planning. Overall, the measure safeguards environmental health without clamping down excessively on new gas stations, supporters said.

Rick Levitan, a Columbia resident involved in the task force's discussions since 2013, said the regulations were necessary to meet the realistics of the changing fueling marketplace. Failure to do so would "undermine the county's economic vibrancy," said Levitan.

The county's current regulations reflect the 1960s models of a fueling industry that has since expanded to bigger stations with larger tanks and more fuel volume, Levitan said.

Shuttered gas stations leave unsightly blight when they go out of business and the cost of redeveloping them can be especially high, particularly along the Route 40 corridor and Oakland Mills, said Paul Verchinski, a Columbia resident.

Councilman Greg Fox said the measure should clearly indicate if electric car charging stations will also be regulated, a change necessary to keep up with an increasing nationwide trend for electric cars.

Ball said the measure may be amended to address concerns before the council considers it on Friday.

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