Sponsor withdraws bill that would have revived plans for Columbia gas station

Howard County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty Monday night withdrew a proposal that would allow a Royal Farms convenience store to move ahead with its 4-year-old plans to open a gas station and store in Columbia.

Sigaty’s proposal was contested by groups that claimed it was special treatment for the Baltimore-based chain.

Withdrawing the bill “was the smarter thing to do at this point in time,” Sigaty said in an interview, declining to elaborate.

As proposed, Sigaty’s bill would have exempted Royal Farms from zoning rules that were updated in 2016 and established minimum lot sizes and standards for the location of fuel pumps.

Royal Farms acquired land off Snowden River Parkway in 2012 and requested approval in 2014 to build the service station and convenience store on the nearly 4-acre lot.

The application for the project was denied in 2015 and the company in 2017 modified its application to address concerns from independent gas station owners and the Columbia Association, which feared the development could cause traffic problems and “undermine decades of careful planning,” the association’s President Milton Matthews said in 2015.

Between Royal Farms’ first 2014 request and its second in 2017, the County Council approved legislation creating new regulations for gas stations in Columbia. Gas stations that requested approval to build before June 27, 2016, would be exempt from the new rules, which set a minimum lot size and required placing fuel pumps 300 feet from schools, parks or day care centers and 100 feet from streams, floodplains and rivers.

The county’s planning director, Val Lazdins, determined that the regulations passed in 2016 would apply to Royal Farms because its 2014 application is no longer valid.

Lazdins’ interpretation prompted Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty to introduce a bill exempting Royal Farms from the new regulations.

Matthews, of the Columbia Association, opposed Sigaty’s bill during a hearing last week because the language of the bill “does not even describe the legislation from more than two years ago,” he said in his testimony last week.

“As drafted, the title of the bill makes it likely the average citizen of Howard County….will have no idea at all as to the subject of” the bill, Matthews said. He also claimed the bill unlawfully amends the county’s zoning regulations because of its “purpose and effect,” he said.

County solicitor Gary W. Kuc in an email said the bill is lawful and “does not amend the text of a zoning regulation.”

Stu Kohn, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, took issue with the fact that Sigaty initially filed the bill in September with detailed language before swapping it with a bare-bones version.

As introduced, the bill would “repeal and reenact” the 2016 legislation that “specified the application of certain provisions to certain properties.” The current bill’s introduction said its purpose is meant to “correct for and accommodate an interpretation of the [2016] legislation which did not reflect the Council’s original intent.”

“We are curious as to the rationale of the change,” Kohn said. Sigaty in an interview said some of the language was scrapped because a date change was all that was needed. The new bill is “simpler to understand,” Sigaty said.

Lisa Markovitz, president of “The People’s Voice,” a civic organization concerned with development that outpaces infrastructure support, in an email said the bill “grants a retroactive grandfathering to one project” and allows Royal Farms to bypass the updated regulations.

“It appears this is not the appropriate process to use to grant such a change,” Markovitz said. “If Royal Farms wants to appeal that, then so be it. But trying to do that with time machine legislation doesn't make sense to us.”

Sang Oh, counsel for Royal Farms in an interview said the bill is consistent with what all parties agreed to in 2016— that the company be grandfathered into the exemption alongside other Columbia gas stations.

“This is not a backroom deal. It was all above board...Nobody particularly liked the [2016] compromise,” Oh said in his testimony last week. “But that was the compromise that everybody bought into.”

The compromise came via an amendment filed by Councilman Calvin Ball and was unanimously passed, although Councilman Greg Fox, who represents the rural western part of the county, voted against the 2016 bill.

Ball in an interview said he is supportive of the intent of the current legislation.

The council also approved Councilwoman Jen Terrasa’s bill that will provide infrastructure support to some residents with electric cars. It also unanimously approved Councilman Jon Weinstein’s amended bill that will add a stipulation for the Historic Preservation Commission to consider when approving requests of alteration of structures in historic districts. The proposal comes in the wake of Howard’s plan to raze 13 buildings in historic Ellicott City to mitigate flooding.

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