There's a war under way in Westminster, and motorists are happy to be caught in the crossfire.
At a time when the average price for regular unleaded gasoline in Maryland is $2.20 a gallon, anyone who passed through this Carroll County city yesterday could fill up for $1.99 - or less - at the Royal Farms, Sheetz, Tevco and Wawa stations.
The fuel feud started with Royal Farms about a week and a half ago, much to drivers' delight and competitors' dismay. "I'm finding reasons to come to Westminster just to buy gas," said Jennifer Read, 20, a Mary Kay consultant from Sykesville who saved $4 filling up her Oldsmobile's tank in town instead of near her home. "It's a big difference."
There's a big difference just on Route 140, the front line. Most gas stations there are charging quite a bit over $1.99 - some were as much as 16 cents more this week.
The price struggle was sparked either by Royal Farms' desire to promote its new store or a tit-for-tat response to an out-of-town zoning battle, depending on whom you ask.
But the bottom line is the same for most competitors. Sales at the Westminster Oceanic convenience store and gas station have fallen by half, and it's not alone.
"Everyone else is suffering," said Oceanic store owner Sam Qaisrani, who lowered his gas by a nickel yesterday - to $2.04 a gallon, as low as he can go at the moment without losing money. "$1.99 is not even my cost," he said.
"I don't know when they're going to stop it," he said of the warring convenience stores, "but I hope they're going to stop it."
Prices in and around Westminster couldn't be beaten anywhere in the state yesterday - at least as recorded by motorists at www.marylandgasprices.com. There are a few stations elsewhere selling $1.99 gas - in West Ocean City and the Southern Maryland town of California, for instance - but they're rare.
A bargain price - relatively speaking - means a lot to drivers, considering that regular unleaded hit record highs in Maryland and the nation last month.
It's not unusual for stores like Royal Farms and Sheetz to sell gas for less. It's cheaper to begin with because it's not name-brand fuel, and sometimes big convenience marts won't mark it up at all, using low pump prices to lure motorists who then buy coffee, sandwiches and snacks.
But usually they're just a few pennies cheaper than the going rate in Westminster. This kind of spread is odd, and several station owners believe that it has little to do with the price of crude oil.
Royal Farms wants to build a convenience store and large gas station in Littlestown, Pa. It's just over the state line from Carroll County and is a community where Westminster-based Tevis Oil owns a Shell station. Royal Farms' plans were approved last week but not before meeting with resistance, including from a representative of that Shell station, according to Littlestown officials.
In the final days before winning approval, Royal Farms dropped the price at its stores in and near Westminster to $1.99, said Qaisrani and Albert Janocha, who has owned a nearby Hess station for 17 years. Tevis Oil's Westminster station followed suit - as did Wawa and Sheetz. The local BJ's Wholesale Club dropped its price to $1.98 yesterday, though you need a membership to take advantage of it.
"You cannot compete with those guys," said Janocha, who lowered his regular unleaded to $2.09 yesterday. "I'm starting to give [it] away. ... I'm hoping that it only lasts for a little while."
His business is off about 25 percent, he said. He's probably lucky it's not worse.
"Forty percent of customers will switch where they buy gas for 3 cents a gallon, and everybody will switch for 8 cents," said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores.
Baltimore-based Royal Farms says that it was simply trying to get that switch-over and that the zoning spat in Pennsylvania had nothing to do with its prices in Westminster. Yesterday evening, it dropped its Westminster price to $1.97.
Royal Farms was the first to go to $1.99, it said, because its store on Route 140 is only a few months old and had to get a foothold in a tough market. A few other Royal Farm stores in Maryland and Delaware also were offering $1.99.
"We thought it would be a good strategic move to get real aggressive on the fuel price to try to [encourage] people to come in and see what we're all about," said Frank Schilling, director of marketing and merchandizing for Royal Farms. "Everybody likes a bargain on fuel, especially nowadays."
It's proved very popular, he said, so the company hopes to keep it up for a while.
Tevis Oil President Jack Tevis doesn't dispute that one of his employees testified in opposition to the Royal Farms store plans in Littlestown, but he said it was probably a mixup, because he supports more competition. That's the American way, and it's good for motorists, he said, noting that his pricing philosophy is to try to match the lowest-price station in the area.