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Exxon hearings to be reopened Plan for third session on gas station is unfair, residents contend


It started out as a typical local zoning fight: a company looking to expand its business and nearby residents who didn't like the idea.

Now the fight over a proposed Exxon station in North Laurel has taken an unusual twist with a recent decision by the Howard County Board of Appeals to reopen hearings on the matter.

And residents opposing the gas station are fuming over what they see as a mismatched fight.

"Reopening the hearings seems to be favoring Exxon," said North Laurel resident Myrtle Coon of the board's unusual decision to reopen the case and conduct a third public hearing Dec. 12.

Said Patsy Yingling, president of the North Laurel Civic Association: "I don't have $10 million to fight Exxon."

But Lonnie Robbins, an attorney with the county's Office of Law who has been acting as counsel for the board during the Exxon hearings, said the board simply wants to make an informed decision.

"They just felt they needed more information," Mr. Robbins said. Though he conceded that reopening a hearing is unusual, he said, "What they're doing is saying we want to make a decision that's appropriate."

Exxon Corp. wants to build a gas station with a convenience store and carwash on a 1.1-acre parcel at All Saints Road and Route 216.

The McDonald's chain wants to build a restaurant next to the proposed gas station.

Entrepreneurs see the site in North Laurel Park as a prime business location. North Laurel Park -- a community bounded by U.S. 1, Route 216, Interstate 95 and Whiskey Bottom Road -- has just one gas station, two tiny strip malls and no fast food restaurants.

But residents complain that the All Saints Road-Route 216 intersection already is considered a high-accident location by the state. The intersection has had 20 accidents this year up to Sunday.

Board members, who are not permitted to discuss ongoing cases outside of hearings or work sessions, heard more than six hours of testimony for and against Exxon's proposal during two public forums in July.

Some members missed the hearings and wanted to hear the taped discussion before making a decision.

That delayed the board's vote until its Sept. 15 work session, when members voted 3-2 to reopen public hearings for arguments on traffic only.

Mr. Robbins said he couldn't recall the board reopening a hearing in the three years he has worked with the panel. Others say they don't recall a hearing being reopened in 10 years.

"The rules allow for it," Mr. Robbins said. "But it really doesn't happen that often."

Residents argue that another round of hearings will be costly for them and say that, if they lose, they would be hard pressed to fight the board's decision in court -- a plight that Exxon doesn't share, they say.

Still, residents vow to press their cause at the December hearing.

"We're going to fight it tooth and comb. I don't think there's one person around who didn't know that was a bad intersection," Ms. Yingling said.

Francis Hunter, a Columbia-based attorney representing Exxon, said the oil company believes that the gas station will not hurt the intersection and wants the opportunity to prove its case.

"We simply said to [board members] if you're uncertain about something, reopen the hearings," Mr. Hunter said.

"The crux of this thing is: Will this issue create a traffic hazard or congestion? Our personal feeling at this point is no."

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