Montgomery residents want Costco at Wheaton mall but not its gas station

The gas station is planned to go near a Kenmont swim club pool.
The gas station is planned to go near a Kenmont swim club pool. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Discount diapers. Great! Gourmet food. Yes! Inexpensive housewares. Wonderful! Even the $4 million public grant to Wheaton mall's owner is fine with many who live nearby.

But the 16-pump gas station near a community pool that Costco insists is part of the deal?

That could undo the bid by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett to lure the mega-discounter to Westfield Wheaton Shopping Mall. And that's in an election year with unpopular budget cuts and when job creation is high on Leggett's list.

Many residents say they welcome Costco: They just don't want to inhale exhaust fumes from cars fueling up a few hundred feet from the neighborhood pool and tennis courts. Some who live in nearby Kensington Heights have offered an alternative: Put the gas station on the other side of the mall, near more-commercial Veirs Mill Road.

The issues could be aired before the county's Board of Appeals, but there is a catch.

Leggett (D) is backing special legislation that would abandon customary zoning review and let Costco build the gas station without going through lengthy public hearings. Both sides acknowledge that hearings could delay and possibly scuttle the station. The appeals board would have to decide whether a gas station would be compatible with the neighborhood and whether another gas station is needed in an area with 14 of them.

"We are in challenging economic times," said Leggett's economic development chief, Steve Silverman, who is pushing the council to bypass the customary review process and approve the deal. "Downtown Wheaton needs revitalization and needs a stable mall."

Silverman said having Costco at the mall, where a former Hecht's department store has been vacant since 2006, could draw shoppers to other mall stores and to downtown Wheaton, an eclectic mix of small shops and ethnic restaurants. The potential for job creation and economic development is a good reason to bypass the usual process, he said.

It wouldn't be the first time the county has helped the mall. When Douglas M. Duncan (D) was county executive, Montgomery contributed $6 million to help build a parking garage near Macy's as part of an effort to attract the store to the mall.

Costco, which sells items as varied as salmon, gigantic cans of vegetables, bulk packages of toilet paper and elegant cakes, has 10 stores in the Washington area, five with gas stations. Montgomery's sole Costco, in Gaithersburg, does not have a gas station.

Neighbors' suggestion to place the gas station on the other side of the mall apparently does not fit with Costco's policy of having a store and gas station within sight of each other, Silverman said. Costco spokeswoman Karen Paulsell and the company's local attorney, Patricia Harris, did not return repeated phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the proposal has encountered high-level opposition. The county planning agency unanimously rejected the special legislation for Costco, saying it violates zoning principles and fails to give community concerns a full airing. Top planning officials also have said the plans would do little to help create a more walkable, urban downtown in Wheaton.

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