The years-long battle between Costco and a coalition of residents, civic associations and environmental groups over whether the retail giant can open a 16-pump gas station at Westfield Wheaton mall rages on.
More hearings on the case are scheduled for April 29 and in May before the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.
Costco opened at the mall about a year ago. Even people living close to its parking lot say the retailer has helped improve the center, which was plagued by security concerns after a series of brazen daylight robberies within a week in late 2011.
“Costco has done a lot to revitalize the mall,” said Paige Ervin, a nearby resident who walks there to shop. “It’s very convenient.”
At the same time, she opposes plans for Costco to operate the gas station in a section that is now part of the parking lot.
“Established streets like University Boulevard and Viers Mill Road are more appropriate for that use,” Ervin said.
The issue came to a head in 2010 when shopping mall operator Westfield announced that Costco agreed to open a store at the Wheaton mall in space that had been vacated by a Hecht’s store in 2006. Costco applied in 2011 for a special zoning exemption for the high-use gas station, part of the required process to open a gas station at the mall.
The Costco station would sell as much as 12 million gallons a year, about three times the amount of an average Freestate station, according to a county attorney’s memo.
Under concerns from residents that the gas station would be within 200 feet of the Kenmont Swim & Tennis Club, the County Council in 2012 blocked Costco’s plans in 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, which has held hearings for several months.
“The gas station would still be in our backyard,” said Danila Sheveiko, a member of the Stop Costco Gas Coalition and past president of the Kensington Heights Civic Association. His backyard borders the mall parking lot.
Sheveiko, an information technology systems engineer who is receiving a public service award on May 2 during the Montgomery County Civic Federation’s annual banquet, cited air pollution concerns from idling cars waiting in line and potential groundwater damage by oil and grease runoff from the station.
A barrier that included a wall and landscaping was already needed to shield his neighborhood from noise by trucks that load and unload Costco products throughout the night, he said. A potential gas station would compound the situation, Sheveiko said.
Patricia Harris, an attorney representing Costco who could not be reached for comment, wrote in a letter to the county that a W Express gas station in Germantown was larger than Costco’s proposed one for Wheaton and was within 150 feet of school athletic fields.
Several Montgomery County Council members said in a memo that the W Express pumps about 3 million gallons annually and is about 500 feet from athletic fields.
An environmental study of idling cars that complied with federal recommended models found “no significant impacts” to air quality, Harris said.
Furthermore, a “significant number of residents” living near the Wheaton mall and in the county supported the gas station, she said. She wrote that she supplied the county a disk with support cards from “almost 5,000 county residents.”
“The voices of a few members of a local community should not drown out the opinion of many others,” Harris wrote.
But Sheveiko doubted many of the supporters of the gas station actually lived next to the mall.
Several shoppers at the Costco on Wednesday said they would welcome a gas station, though they admitted they did not live nearby. A woman who drove from Bethesda to shop at Costco and declined to give her name said she felt safe shopping there.
“I drive here often to shop and have never had any problems,” she said.
Ana Lopez van Balen, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center, a county-operated facility that administers job training, food assistance and other programs from its offices in downtown Wheaton near the mall, said she has heard overwhelming support for Costco. Some people “used to be concerned about coming to Wheaton, but now come to Wheaton because of the Costco and have been surprised at their positive experience,” she said.
“Costco has been a huge success all around for the mall and for Wheaton,” van Balen said.