Gas stations nationwide are evolving and so should Howard County's, a report from the County Council-appointed Fueling Station Task Force suggests.
Just how much that evolution should be regulated by local government is up for debate.
The market for motor fuels has shrunk in recent years: According to statistics from the Maryland Comptroller's Office cited in the report, gasoline demand in the state during the first half of 2014 declined by 3.6 percent over the same period in 2013, driven by a rise in more fuel-efficient vehicles, alternative fuels and increased interest in public transportation.
At the same time, the model for a successful gas station is changing. High-volume stations with large convenience marts, opened by retail-focused brands like Royal Farms, Costco and Wawa have cropped up, challenging the archetype of smaller gas stations with repair shops and car washes.
To protect against environmental pollution and blight from shuttered gas stations, task force members are recommending new regulations like mandatory setbacks and a needs assessment for future stations hoping to set up shop in Howard. Critics say the measures are protectionist and unnecessary, since gas stations are already regulated by the state.
In its own notes on the report, the county's planning and zoning department agreed the definition of fueling stations should be broadened but recommended scaling back some of the task force's other recommendations.
Columbia's history as a planned community complicates the local market. Planners envisioned self-contained village centers offering all the amenities residents need: Gas stations located in these areas are still required to offer certain services, such as auto repairs, but have limited retail space so as not to compete with the grocery stores that traditionally anchor the centers.
"Howard County's current status is one of the most economically vibrant, high property value, high income areas in the state, in part because of the benefits of the planned community vision upon which Columbia is based," said fueling station task force chair Dick King.
The 10-member task force included petroleum industry experts, like King, environmentalists, business representatives and community members. One major concern for the group was the potential for air pollution and underground gas leaks posed by larger stations.
"When a spill happens underground, it’s not pretty," said Meagan Braganca, a task force member and chair of Howard County's chapter of the Sierra Club. "And when it’s underneath a building the [air pollutants] get sucked up into the building and it’s actually more dangerous than it would be outside." Two of the proposed regulations would keep new gas stations more than 500 feet from environmentally sensitive areas and institutions such as schools and assisted living facilities.
But Sang Oh, an attorney representing Royal Farms -- which hopes to open a gas station on Snowden River Parkway in Columbia -- said the recommendations were weighted against new stations.
"The fact of the matter is if people are driving past their nearest gas station going to another station, that’s not a zoning issue," Oh said. "I submit to you that the only reason we’re talking about this... is for the sole purpose of killing the Royal Farms on Snowden River."
Recommendations from the report include:
• A needs assessment based on objective criteria to determine whether a station is necessary
• New fueling stations should be at least 2,500 feet from existing ones
• Fueling stations should not be located within 500 feet of from schools, parks, playgrounds, day cares, assisted living facilities or other outdoor cultural, entertainment or recreation uses
• Fueling stations should not be located within 500 feet of environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands, streams, rivers and flood plains
• Site plans for proposed fueling stations should acommodate efficient traffic flow and lines for pumps
• Stations should have at least 180 feet of street frontage
• Stations should be at least 40,000 square feet
• New, large-volume stations should be situated near interstate exits if possible.
The recommendations are currently before the Planning Board, which will vote to endorse or recommend against each point at its next meeting, on Dec. 10.