Closed gas station fuels worries

Oakland Mills kept in the dark about Exxon's site plans

January 04, 2001|By Larry Carson | By Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Amid worry that Columbia's older villages could succumb to blight as they age, residents of Oakland Mills are wondering why Exxon Mobil Corp. has left a boarded-up gas station as the first thing visitors see in the refurbished village center.

The former Exxon station at 5901 Stevens Forest Road closed without warning more than 15 months ago, and the company has yet to submit a plan for what will become of the property. A nearby former convenience store is also vacant.

The Rouse Co. spent more than $4 million to renovate the 30-year-old village center, which reopened two years ago with a new 42,000- square-foot Metro Food Market. Oakland Mills is Columbia's second-oldest village, and residents and town officials worry about its image after several high-profile crimes -- including the unsolved killings of two teen-agers in November 1999 -- and lower-than-average test scores in neighborhood schools.

"It would be much preferable to have that property occupied and revenue-producing. We have been trying desperately to get ahold of them [Exxon Mobil] and get their attention," said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of Rouse, Columbia's developer.

But despite a state deadline next month for reopening the station or removing underground gasoline tanks, and an offer to take over the site from at least one local gas station owner, Exxon is mum on the property's fate.

Susan Carter, a spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil in the company's Fairfax, Va., regional headquarters, said the new corporation is evaluating its station sites and has not decided what to do with the one at Oakland Mills.

Most likely, however, she said, the company will sell or rebuild it as a gas-and-go convenience food store.

Offer on the table

Peter Stanger, who operates Exxon stations in Long Reach and nearby at Stevens Forest Road and Broken Land Parkway, said he has offered several times to take over the Oakland Mills facility. He would like to convert his Stevens Forest Exxon to a gas and food outlet and reopen the station at Oakland Mills for gas and repairs because it is close to so many homes.

"If they're going to open it, I want to have it," he said. "Leaving it empty is surprising to me."

He has received no response to his application months ago to operate the station, he said.

Village residents are no less surprised, but are more upset.

"I am very disappointed in their apparent lack of interest," said David Hatch, chairman of Oakland Mills Village Board.

Hatch said he lives close enough to walk to the station and has had his cars repaired there in years past. Now he goes several miles south for maintenance work.

"It could be a real asset to the village" again, Hatch said. "The people of the village are ready to take advantage of it."

But the building, with 10 repair bays and an automatic carwash, remains boarded up, signs covered with tarps, the driveway entrances roped off.

Seeking state help

Residents hope the state can help pressure Exxon Mobil.

Mick Butler, program administrator of the Maryland Department of the Environment's oil control program, said state law requires out-of-use underground fuel tanks to be dug up after one year, but Exxon Mobil was granted an extension until Feb. 8.

Fines for ignoring the deadline could be as much as $100,000, he said, although the company could also request another extension on the argument that the tanks are empty and pose no threat of pollution.

The station's closing followed by weeks the opening of Congee House, a locally owned Chinese restaurant that removed a three-year eyesore by occupying a long-vacant building that once was a fast-food outlet.

Congee House is next to the gas station, and part-owner Mike Chao said it is hurting his efforts to build a business.

"It looks bad," he said. "We will have to do something," such as adding more outside lights, he said, noting that at night, the closed station is dark, discouraging would-be diners.

Barbara Russell, the village's Columbia Council representative, said the vacant buildings are "really counterproductive to our whole effort to revitalize the village center."

If Exxon Mobil no longer wants the building, she said, the village would like to start looking for a use for the site.

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