Closing arguments on long Costco case due in August -- Gazette.Net







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Closing arguments before a county zoning hearing examiner concerning the three-year-plus case over whether Costco at the Westfield Wheaton mall can have a gas station are slated for August.

The Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings has held hearings for months; the last one was May 29.

The date for closing arguments is Aug. 14. Then, the office will prepare a report for the Board of Appeals, which could schedule a hearing and make a ruling in the fall.

“We remain confident that the facts of this case will prevail,” said Erich Brann Jr., director of real estate development for Costco Wholesale. “We are grateful for the continued, high level of support we have received from thousands of local residents who want access to safe, clean and affordable gas.”

The case before the zoning hearing administrator has run for more than a year and likely set a record for the longest-running Montgomery County land use hearing, said Danila Sheveiko, a member of the Stop Costco Gas Coalition and past president of the Kensington Heights Civic Association, who lives near the mall parking lot.

“The nation’s fourth largest corporate retailer is being matched toe-to-toe by a coalition of residents, small businesses, civic and environmental groups,” he said.

The coalition opposes the proposed 16-pump gas station, mostly due to environmental concerns. Mall operator Westfield and Costco have not made good on promises so far to protect area residents, Karen Cordry, president of the Kensington Heights Civic Association, said in a recent letter to Montgomery County Council members.

“There is still no green wall, there is no pedestrian path and nothing has been done to enhance the forest buffer,” Cordry said. “All of the promises made by Westfield have been held back and offered only as part of the design conditions for the mega-gas station Costco is still single-mindedly insisting be built.”

Brann said Costco would install a 700-foot long, 8-foot high “green screen wall” involving trees, shrubs and other landscaping near the edge of the parking lot to further buffer residents, if the gas station is allowed.

The barrier that includes a wall and landscaping was promised as part of conditions for a $4 million county subsidy to Westfield for the Costco project, Sheveiko said.

The 151,000-square-foot Costco — more spacious, with wider aisles, than the Gaithersburg store — opened at the mall more than a year ago, taking over space vacated by a Hecht’s store in 2006. Economic development officials say it has done much to improve the center.

The company has gas stations at the Beltsville, Columbia and Frederick stores, while the Gaithersburg site is too dense for a gas station, Brann said. Both of the Gaithersburg and Wheaton Costcos have tire service centers.

Costco applied in 2011 for a special zoning exemption for the gas station, part of the required process. The station is expected to sell between 9 million and 10 million gallons of gas annually, about the same as the stations in Beltsville and Columbia sold last year, Brann said.

Under concerns from residents that the gas station would be within 200 feet of the Kenmont Swim & Tennis Club, which is near the mall, the County Council in 2012 blocked Costco’s plans. That was done by passing an amendment requiring such large gas stations to be at least 300 feet away from schools and recreation facilities. Costco proposed to move the station farther from the swim center, with the issue winding up before the county’s zoning hearings office.