Developer Donald Reuwer didn't think proposing to build another gas station on U.S. 1 in Elkridge would be a big deal, and it's easy to see why. The U.S. 1 corridor in Howard County has long been the Fifth Avenue of fuel, with 15 gas stations along its central, seven-mile stretch.
But the boulevard has more recently become home to something other than gasoline: grand visions of revitalization. After much talk about redeveloping the beleaguered U.S. 1 corridor, Howard County officials are taking action, and Reuwer's project is one of the first targets.
The county planning board has recommended against his proposal for a gas station just north of the U.S. 1-Route 100 interchange - a ruling that he plans to appeal tomorrow night. Adding another gas station to the boulevard, board members say, would be at odds with the federally funded effort to buff up the county's longest commercial strip.
"I think for the revitalization of Route 1, 16 [gas stations] is too many," said Planning Board member Gary L. Kaufman, who owns a funeral home just south of the site. "To some extent, enough's enough."
Whatever the outcome of Reuwer's application, his experience has already served as a sign of battles to come on the U.S. 1 corridor. As county officials set a higher standard for zoning approvals on the boulevard, they are bracing for protests from business owners and developers like Reuwer, who argue that their rights are being unfairly sacrificed for unrealistic visions of a U.S. 1 overhaul.
Reuwer says his proposed gas station actually would improve the U.S. 1 corridor, because he plans to build to higher standards than the norm on the strip.
"It will be immensely attractive," he said. "Service stations can be gorgeous."
Local officials say the problems with the proposed gas station, which would include a fast-food restaurant and convenience store, go beyond its incompatibility with the county's plans for the corridor. The 3-acre site would be difficult for Route 100 motorists to access, they say, and isn't big enough to handle the levels of business Reuwer says it would attract.
In addition, they say, Reuwer and his lawyer, Richard B. Talkin, haven't proved that there is a need for another gas station. Owners of nearby gas stations plan to testify at tomorrow night's Board of Appeals hearing that they are operating below capacity.
"Why do we need to build another one?" said Mark Wilkens, the owner of three stations on the corridor. "Competition is good. The question is, how much competition do you need before it drives the market down?"
The biggest strike against the proposal, though, is that it doesn't fit with the county's hopes for U.S. 1. In his report calling for rejection of the proposal, Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., found that a gas station would "adversely affect the general welfare and logical development of the corridor."
Reuwer disagrees, saying his proposal shouldn't be compared to the gas stations that already line the road. His plans call for a restrained design, similar to that of the strictly regulated gas stations in neighboring Columbia, he said.
"Up and down Route 1 all you see is one hideous gas station after another. You see the battle of the signs, the battle of the gaud," Reuwer said. "What we're proposing is Route 1 revitalization, doing service stations in a planned way, not a helter-skelter way."
County officials are skeptical, saying the property - vacant except for some abandoned tractor-trailers and zoned for manufacturing - is better suited for a hotel or office building. "We have to be consistent in what we do now to be sure that [U.S. 1] upgrades itself," Kaufman said.
Earlier this year, the federal government awarded the county a $500,000 grant to improve its 10 miles of boulevard, including the busy, seven-mile stretch north of Route 32. The corridor is also the subject of an 18-month study being conducted by a panel of 26 local business and community leaders.
According to Kevin Doyle, co-chairman of the new panel and president of the Elkridge Community Association, the county's tough stance toward the proposed gas station is just what the corridor needs. Citizen recommendations won't mean much without official backing to overcome developers' resistance, Doyle said.
"Previously, the county just seemed to rubber-stamp, if it was something that was allowed," Doyle said. "Now, we're going to have the county saying no to specific types of development in specific cases. The county is the actual hammer that allows the vision to come to fruition."