Costco’s bid to put a gas station at its Wheaton location hit another snag when the Montgomery County Planning Board voted Thursday to recommend denying the plan.
The plan now heads to public hearings at the Stella B. Werner Council Office Building in Rockville scheduled for March 11, 15, 18 and 22 before a county hearing examiner, who will make another recommendation on the proposal.
The final decision on whether Costco will get its 16-pump gas station will come from the county’s Board of Appeals.
Three out of five planning board commissioners decided Thursday the gas station would not align with a goal in the Wheaton Sector Plan for area developments to promote the use of public transportation, including Metro and bus services.
Separately, two commissioners agreed with a county planning staff report, released about a week ago, that the gas station could potentially have adverse health impacts. They thought the board should deny the request on that reasoning, but the majority did not agree.
The board’s decision followed a public hearing with several hours of testimony, including that from Costco and from Wheaton and Kensington area residents, many of whom voiced opposition to the station and cited potential health impacts.
Other residents said they supported the station. Some said it would be a convenient location with cheap gas.
Some parents with children attending the Stephen Knolls School for special-needs students, near the planned station site, asked the board to deny Costco’s special exception request.
Costco must receive a special exception from the county Board of Appeals before it can apply for a building permit to construct the planned 16-pump gas station near the Westfield Wheaton shopping mall.
Sam Campbell, president of the school’s Parent/Student Association, said she was concerned that frequent, long-term exposure to the gas station would affect the health of her son Jack and his fellow students.
“Now, we need to do what’s right for the vulnerable children of Stephen Knolls,” Campbell said.
Steven Gibson, of Kensington said that during the construction of Costco’s store in the mall, fumes from the site prevented him and his family from opening their windows and using their deck.
Gibson said his family is opposed to the station and that he was “no longer going to take it on the chin for the community.”
Andrew Fraser of Kensington said he is concerned about emissions from cars idling as they wait for their turn at the pump.
The gas station’s impacts might not be currently known, he said, comparing the situation to the tobacco industry claiming smoking did not cause cancer.
“I don’t really want my kids to be the guinea pigs,” Fraser said.
During Costco’s testimony, David Sullivan, a certified consulting meteorologist whose firm analyzed air quality and other factors for Costco, said the modeled air quality findings were measured against — and found to be well below — Environmental Protection Agency standards. He said that’s the only objective standards available.
Emissions from queuing cars would have to increase more than tenfold to approach the standards, he said.
“The health effects are not well understood” and the models used “are fraught with uncertainty,” said Patrick Breysse, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose research experience includes studying the impact of air pollution on respiratory health.
Breysse — who was hired by the Kensington Heights Civic Association as an expert — said his concerns include volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, and traffic-related pollution.
While Costco may be below them, the EPA standards “are not a license to pollute,” he said.
Dr. Henry Cole — an expert consultant for the Stop Costco Gas Coalition and a former senior scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air Quality, Planning and Standards — said he thought that Costco had not provided “a sufficient, reliable study” on the area’s pre-existing air and that he disagreed with many of the assumptions made in Costco’s modelling.
“There’s a great deal of uncertainty in those models,” Cole said.
Donna Savage of Kensington Heights said the gas station would not further the area sector plan’s transit-focused goal for development.
Residents are willing to use transit, she said, and should be reliant on transit rather than cars.
Other residents expressed support for a gas station they said would offer cheap gas in a safe, clean environment.
“I should not have to travel out of the county to access gas I can afford,” Jaime Garcia of Kensington said.
He said he did not think the station would have negative environmental or health impacts.