Thirty years ago in almost every part of rural Fairfax County, gas stations selling bread and milk, chocolate and soft drinks were commonplace. Many of those stations stood at corners that are today's busiest intersections.
Photographs of those old stations are viewed sentimentally by those who are not pleased with the rapid growth which continues in suburban Fairfax County. The Fairfax they once knew is now developing its own downtown at Tysons Corner, where one of those multi-purpose gas stations stood at Routes 123 and 7.
With suburbanization came streamlined service stations. Soft drinks and snacks were moved to vending machines.
Ironically, that's all shifting back, and the trend is causing problems for regulators.
Fairfax County today is in the middle of a major land-use dilemma generated by service station operators who want to compete with local quick service grocery stores. In increasing numbers, station operators are asking the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to allow them to return to the good old days. Operators are asking for approval to remodel, and at the same time want the right to sell food -- milk and bread, candy bars and soft drinks.
In almost all parts of the county there is support for stations selling food items. But there is equal support for keeping gas stations out of the grocery business.
Fairfax gas stations generally sell food items from vending machines, according to a Fairfax County planning staff member. Those that sell items over the counter need special permits.
Denton Kent, chief of comprehensive planning, said he has no idea how many applications are pending. But citizen group leaders said they are familiar with such proposals all over Fairfax. Many of the applications come from stations which are already selling food illegally.
During a recent attempt by a Mobil station at the intersection of Old Dominion Drive and Spring Hill Road between McLean and Great Falls, an attorney from one of the county's most powerful land-use law firms argued before a citizens group that the application to sell food was being requested to legitimatize what was already going on.
On Jan. 7, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the station's right to remodel, but denied the application to sell food except from vending machines. The proposal to allow food sales had support from both the county planning staff and the planning commission.,
Mobil is now suing the county over that decision. Residents of the area are expected to file friend-of-the-court briefs stating their opposition.
Attorneys representing Mobil declined to comment on the case because it is in litigation.
Speaking to a civic group last week, Jay Wright, an attorney and leader of a civic association near the Mobil station, said one of the main objections to the permit was that "diversification could lead to a shopping center." Owners of 13 adjacent acres recently asked Fairfax to change its land plan to permit construction of a shopping center.
Several other similar applications are to be acted on in the next few weeks.
Crown Central Petroleum Corp. has asked to remodel its station at 6464 Edsall Rd. They too are asking to add a quick service food store. And Mobil has asked to remodel an existing Lee Highway station and add a food service store.
Several months ago the McLean Citizens Association beat efforts by a Scott service station to add a quick service food store in the middle of that business district. Scott gave up, said one civic leader, and sold the site. An office building is now planned on the site. That is much more to the liking of local residents.
In a continuing controversy, a service station in an historic district on the Georgetown Pike near the Central Intelligence Agency is the focus of a battle over whether that station has the right to sell food and other items over the counter. In spite of rulings against those sales by the county zoning administrator's office, station operators continue to sell soft drinks and milk. Several community meetings have been held opposing the operation primarily because the station is in an historic district. But some neighbors said they like being able to buy milk in their neighborhood.
Attorney Wright has asked his neighbors to help fight allowing the Mobil station on Old Dominion Drive to continue to sell food and drinks except in vending machines. "We felt the moment you cross the line, if you can have a food store, then you can have a dry cleaner."
His words have proven prophetic. A Texaco station at the main intersection of McLean's central business district has come up with plans that would allow a dry cleaning-laundry operation to share its facility on the triangle in the middle of what is known as "McLean's gasoline alley.