Attorneys: Costco coming to Westfield Wheaton
Costco will not seek fast-tracked zoning approvals, will pursue store, gas station separately
Costco is coming to Wheaton, regardless of whether the county approves its 16-pump gas station.
This news was transmitted from Costco attorneys to county officials earlier this week after Costco officials said for several months the gas station would make or break their decision to bring a Costco wholesale store to Westfield Wheaton mall.
"There will be a Costco in Wheaton," said county spokesman Patrick Lacefield. "The only question is whether it will have a gas station or not have a gas station. They're prepared to move ahead whichever way it goes."
County Executive Isiah Leggett proposed in March fast-tracking zoning approvals on the gas station because he feared the standard, lengthier zoning process might cause the county to lose the Costco deal that could reinvigorate the struggling shopping center. But many neighbors some of whom live 150 feet from the proposed station adamantly opposed the gas station, saying the environmental, traffic and sound impacts were unreasonable.
Now, county officials and Costco representatives have reached an agreement, Lacefield said. Costco will no longer seek the accelerated approvals, he said. Instead, the wholesaler will pursue the lengthier route of going through the Planning Board, the Board of Appeals and the Council. This route usually takes nine months to a year, and the applicant must prove that there is a need for their project in the community, said Montgomery's director of the department of economic development Steve Silverman.
The Costco store and the gas station will be pursued as two separate projects, with separate paperwork filed for each, he said. This means the store can be approved, even if the gas station is not.
"I think Costco understands that we're a welcoming community for businesses, but we need you to work with your neighbors," said Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). "I'm fully appreciative that they'll do that."
And many neighbors aren't happy about the prospect of the lights, sounds, smells and traffic of a gas station moving in next door. Donna Savage, the chair of the Kensington Heights Civic Association's Land Use Committee, has accepted Costco is coming, but is vehemently opposed to the gas station. She said she did not like how Costco was blackmailing the county into an all-or-nothing approval.
"It wasn't logical to us that they would take their toys and go home if they didn't get their gas station," she said, after hearing the news from a Costco representative. "... It was, in effect, calling their bluff. That's not what we were doing, but that's what ended up happening."
Savage said she does not think Costco will be able to get its gas station approved if it goes the longer route, which requires demonstrating there is a need for the gas station in the community. She said there is already an abundance of gas stations within a half mile of Costco's proposed site.
"There is ... no way that a gas station is going to be approved under the special exception process," she said.
But Silverman seems confident Costco can pull it off. He said the gas station is compliant with the area's master plan, so they just need to prove the community needs it.
"Need is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "[Costco] will come in with studies, I assume the community will come in with studies, et cetera, et cetera. That's the way it always works. ... We think it will be granted; we think there will be a showing of need."
Savage said she thinks Costco realized the council would not be able to get through the required discussions before the zoning amendment expired in late October. Floreen backed up this point, saying the amendment was not yet on the council agenda, so it would be difficult for the council to take it up any time soon.
Silverman said Costco decided to move ahead without the stipulation of the gas station because the venture will be profitable either way.
"They're going to make money in Wheaton with or without a gas station," he said. "That's the bottom line. You have to keep in mind they are moving forward with a project in the District of Columbia and Fairfax, and neither one of those will have a gas station."
Costco is under discussions to go into an anchor store property in Westfield Wheaton that has been vacant for years. The county has approved giving Westfield Wheaton $4 million for renovations that helped lure Costco to Wheaton. Ninety-three of the last 95 Costco stores built had gas stations attached, Silverman said.