A task force examining the future of fueling stations in Howard County has recommended that new stations pass a needs assessment and adhere to a stricter set of health, safety and environmental guidelines before receiving approval, according to a report submitted to the County Council.
The recommendations come in the midst of a national decline in demand for gas, as the number of fuel-efficient vehicles on the market grows and more commuters opt for alternative forms of transportation.
"On the retail petroleum marketing side, there have been some tremendous changes," task force chair Richard King, a petroleum industry expert, told the council in a presentation at its monthly meeting Feb. 9.
According to a statistic from the Maryland Comptroller's office cited in the report, gasoline demand statewide declined by 3.6 percent in the first six months of 2014 when compared to 2013. On a national scale, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has projected that American demand for gas will decline 24 percent by 2040.
At the same time, the industry trend for gas stations has been toward high-volume fueling centers coupled with convenience marts, such as those operated by Royal Farms, Wawa and Sheetz.
Local gas station owners, particularly those located in the village centers where traffic is sparser, have said Columbia's covenants put them at a strategic disadvantage and worry they will be run out of business if regulations aren't put in place to level the playing field for new entrants to the market.
The fueling task force was created in response to a call from some of these business owners for the council to take a new look at zoning regulations for gas stations.
The 12-member group, which in addition to King included local business representatives, village board members, environmentalists and a member of the county's transportation board, looked at the issue through the lens of health, safety, environmental and business factors, and also considered the potential for blight if a gas station is shuttered.
The task force's final report included a dozen recommendations, including the needs assessment "to determine whether a fueling station is necessary," which the group said "should be based on objective criteria for demand in a defined market area." The report did not specify what those criteria would be.
One idea, put forth by local gas station owners, would be to require a market study proving the need for a station. Market studies used to be required for all new gas station proposals in the county, but that process was eliminated after both supporters and opponents produced contradictory, biased reports, according to Department of Planning and Zoning Director Marsha McLaughlin.
Another recommendation to combat blight, according to the report, is to locate new fueling stations at least 2,500 feet from any other station, except for stations located across a fully divided roadway.
Large-volume stations should also be encouraged to locate next to interstate interchanges, to accommodate high levels of demand there, task force members said.
In addition to its anti-blight recommendations, the report suggests a series of setback requirements intended to bolster health, safety and environmental protections.
For example, the group recommends locating fueling stations more than 500 feet away from schools, parks, daycare facilities, senior centers and other health-sensitive areas, and recommends the same distance be kept from environmentally fragile areas such as streams and wetlands.
The setback for gas stations is currently just 30 feet; the 500-foot requirement would launch Howard County past neighboring jurisdictions like Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where large stations must keep a distance of 300 feet from schools, playgrounds and similar public amenities.
The report offers size and design recommendations, as well. Task force members suggest new stations be located on sites of at least 40,000 square feet with 180 feet of public street frontage, and should feature "efficient traffic flow and queuing at the pump islands," to reduce air pollution from idling cars.
The new regulations, if passed, should only apply to new gas stations, task force members said; existing stations should be grandfathered in to encourage "the acquisition and redevelopment of existing locations by others," according to the report.
The group also looked to a future filled with more cars powered by alternative energy sources. The report suggests the county create tax incentives for businesses that install alternative charging stations as well as for consumers who buy electric vehicles.
Rick Levitan, who owns two Shell stations in the village centers of Owen Brown and Dorsey's Search, said he was "very happy" with the task force's recommendations.
"They demonstrated that they've done a ton of research and they understand the petroleum industry," he said. "And they understand Howard County, Columbia new town and how it was developed. I'm hoping that the County Council adopts their recommendations."
A lawyer for Royal Farms, which hopes to open a gas station on Snowden River Parkway and has testified against needs assessments and other restrictions, was not immediately available for comment.
Though the task force was asked to place particular emphasis on considering guidelines for fueling stations in the New Town district, a flexible zoning category that applies to Columbia and its village centers, the group suggested its recommendations be applied throughout the county.
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The next step for the County Council is to decide whether to incorporate the recommendations into a future zoning amendment or other legislation.