Charles County commissioners, citing potential traffic problems, say they may move to slow the proliferation of convenience stores that also sell gasoline.
Business leaders said such a step would hinder competition and harm a type of commerce that has sprung up to meet local needs.
Commissioners raised concerns about the "gas-and-go" stores at a meeting last week but took no immediate action. They discussed whether to give county planners the power to reject stores, even in commercially zoned areas where such facilities are now routinely allowed.
Commissioners said their attention was drawn by the sudden advent of three gas-and-go stores on a three-mile stretch of Berry Road in Waldorf. One store recently opened, another is under construction and the third is planned.
"If our regulations are allowing this, my sense is our regulations aren't properly drawn," said Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large).
Levy said the convenience stores could hinder traffic, as motorists pull into and out of parking lots.
"It's not a question of not allowing" the stores, Levy said. "The question is, how do you situate these? You cannot have one on every corner."
Convenience stores and gas stations represented the largest single category of commercial projects in Charles County last year, accounting for five of 24 commercial building permits, according to county statistics.
David Cooksey, a land planner who monitors commercial activity in the Waldorf area, said the gas-and-go stores are being built to meet demand created by the county's residential growth.
Cooksey said restrictions would discourage other businesses from coming into the county.
"What's next? Car dealerships? Or retail stores?" Cooksey said. "They're scaring people off. It's an anti-business climate."
Among the three stores that drew the commissioners' attention is one under construction at the corner of Middletown and Berry roads. The store's owner, Elliott "Sonny" Burch, said the facility has been planned for three years.
"I don't think it's going to affect traffic at all," said Burch, president of Burch Oil Co., of Hollywood, which owns roughly a dozen convenience stores throughout Southern Maryland.
Another convenience store owner, Lock Wills, said the stores do not create traffic, but draw customers from motorists who would be driving by in any case.
"People don't go out of their way to stop and buy bread and milk and sodas," said Wills, chairman of Dash-In food stores, a La Plata-based chain with roughly 40 stores in Maryland and Delaware.
Levy said congestion on main roads through Waldorf and Hughesville has left commissioners wary.
"We don't want to put every road in the county in the posture of killing it from overuse and poor planning," Levy said.
Commissioner Marland Deen (R-Waldorf) said he was uncomfortable with restrictions. "There's something called the free enterprise system," Deen said.
Deen suggested regulations to ensure the convenience stores offer water and air for automobiles -- and public restrooms, too.
"I find it remarkable that . . . you can buy gas and oil but you can't empty your own tank," Deen said.