Rancho Cucamonga Declares A Moratorium On Service Station Development Projects

In a move hailed by both environmentalists and futurists and conversely decried by free marketeers, the City of Rancho Cucamonga this week put a 45-day moratorium on the approval of new or the revamping of old service stations within its city limits.
The vote by the council puts on hold or will perhaps impede permanently the construction of two pending new gas stations and the revival of two currently shuttered filling stations.
The council action sets the stage for the eventual adaptation of standards intended toward facilitating the so-called net zero carbon target, which originally six years ago was to entail a stabilization in the use of fossil fuels throughout the entirety of California at 2015 levels by the end of this year going forward even in the face of further state population growth and development. Zero carbon target advocates have more recently reset the fossil fuel use stabilization goal at the year 2030.
On March 17, 2021, the city council asked city staff to gather information pertaining to and conduct some analysis of gas stations in the city of Rancho Cucamonga in order to give that decision-making panel some direction with regard to the regulation of gas stations and their future development as to be overseen by the city and its planning division.
On Wednesday afternoon, April 21, 2021 the council considered and later that evening signed off on a set of findings that grew out of the municipal planning division’s inquiry along the lines the council suggested on March 17. At a specially-called afternoon session devoted to the consideration of the city’s future policy with regard to filling stations that was intended to augment the city council’s regularly scheduled meeting that night, Planning Director Anne Browning McIntosh said, “We have had a recent activity in our planning department and building and safety [division] around service stations that we haven’t seen for other commercial uses.”
After having last approved a new gas station nine years ago, the city is currently considering four applications to build new or revive shuttered existing gas stations.
McIntosh said, “It is a good time to look at this issue and determine whether or not we are adequately prepared to review additional applications, whether or not our codes are adequate to regulate these. There are concerns around land use impacts related to service stations.” She said there were questions about the relative financial benefits of gas stations to the city and how they compare with other potential land uses, as well as what the optimum number of gas stations in the city would or should be.
McIntosh noted that in common parlance there are strict differences in the definitions of gas stations and service stations, with service stations defined as ones providing mechanic services such as radiator work, smog checks and tire replacement, but that the city code uses the term service station as a catch-all that blurs the distinction between gas stations and service stations even if a gas station “does not have those additional vehicle services.”
The point was made that service stations that included a full range of mechanical services and which proliferated in the past are declining, and that gas stations now more commonly entail gas pumps and a convenience store.
McIntosh noted that Rancho Cucamonga, with its 32 active stations and two inactive ones had a larger number of service stations than its surrounding cities, as there are 21 in Fontana, 20 in Ontario and 17 in Upland, though McIntosh said Upland had more stations per square mile than does Rancho Cucamonga.
The findings contained in the staff report presented to and ultimately adopted by the city council suggested that gas stations represent in much of their aspect negative environmental consequences. A glut of gas stations, the report propounded, could intensify the disadvantage inherent in such land uses because ruinous competition between them could lead to some of the stations closing and being neglected, thus resulting in harm to the environment.
“The Environmental Protection Agency has classified service stations and fuel storage locations as uses that may result in a brownfield site,” according to the statement of findings. “Brownfield sites are properties, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. Common contaminants found at service station sites include gasoline, diesel, and petroleum oil, volatile organic compounds and solvents, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and lead. Exposure to the types of contaminants present, or potentially present, at service stations threatens the public health, safety or welfare of neighboring communities.”
The statement of findings continues, “There are thirty-two service stations currently in operation in the City of Rancho Cucamonga. There are an additional two more service stations that are currently in plan check review for building permits or under construction. Many of the existing service stations are located near sensitive receptors. The close proximity of service stations to these areas increases the risk of contaminant exposure to vulnerable populations. This problem is exacerbated in situations where the service station may become a brownfield site. A disproportionate amount of the city’s existing service stations are concentrated in the southwest and central areas of the city. Thirteen service stations are located in District 2 [on the city’s south and southwest side] and eleven are located in District 3 [in the city’s central core]. In contrast, districts 1 [in the northwest corner of the city] and 4 [on the northeast and east portion of the city] have only five service stations each. The proliferation of service stations in districts 2 and 3 inequitably increases health risks for the residents of these districts due to the potential contaminants present at service stations. As a matter of environmental justice, the city council must carefully consider how such uses are zoned under the city’s general plan and development code in order to avoid an undue concentration of service stations in any one part of the city.”
The findings touched on the degree to which gas stations appear to be a magnet for crime.
“Based on data provided by the sheriff’s department, the amount of criminal activity that occurs specifically at service stations necessitates that police services be routinely deployed to service stations,” the statement of findings puts forth. “Over the past five years, the number of calls for service at service stations has steadily increased. In 2020, a total of 1,059 calls for service were made at service stations in the city, resulting in approximately 2,455 hours of police time spent policing and protecting service stations. The development of additional service stations within the city would result in additional strains on police services to counter the potential for increased criminal activity.”
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department provides contractual law enforcement services to the city and serves as the Rancho Cucamonga Police Department.
During Wednesday afternoon’s meeting, both McIntosh and City Manager John Gillison observed that gas stations in the city are so plentiful that everywhere within the city except at its extreme north end, residents are no more than five minutes driving time from a filling station.
According to the statement of findings, “Applications for additional service stations continue to be submitted to the city despite the already high concentration of service stations in the city and declining demand. The declining demand for gasoline is partly demonstrated by the decline in annual service station revenues in the city. According to revenue estimates reported to the city by existing service stations, such revenues have declined by over half a million dollars from 2019 to 2020, echoing global trends, which have seen the decline in service stations over the past ten years due to a variety of factors, including the proliferation of electric vehicles, shared mobility solutions, and alternative fuel options. Furthermore, vehicle technology is rapidly evolving such that reliance on gas is steadily declining. According to a report from the Boston Consulting Group, it is estimated that by 2030, more than one third of all new vehicles will be fully or partially electric. Charging for electric vehicles can take place in a variety of locations such as at home, work and in parking lots. Ride-sharing solutions further reduce demand for gasoline as car ownership becomes more obsolete.”
Moreover, according to the statement of findings, “The declining demand for gasoline may increase competition amongst the existing service stations in the city such that closures may occur over time. Due to their propensity to become brownfield sites, service stations require significant investment to remediate any potential ground contamination prior to redevelopment. Closed sites may be abandoned and left unused for years and removal of contaminants may present health risks for neighboring communities and sensitive receptors. Additional closures could result in increased blight and dangerous conditions throughout the city, thereby threatening public health, safety and welfare. The city council wishes to assess the appropriate concentration and locations of service stations given declining demand.”
Dan Titus, a resident of the Alta Loma district of Rancho Cucamonga, in comments provided in writing to the city council, disputed multiple elements of the findings.
“Staff claims that ‘The analysis of issues related to service stations makes clear that service stations pose a threat to public health, safety, and welfare and the city must evaluate new regulations to address that threat,’” Titus wrote. “Citing that service stations are a ‘threat’ is a bold statement, especially in the context of public health, safety and welfare. Staff cites police service calls as a primary criteria in determination that service stations are a ‘threat.’ However, no other statistics were offered, for a baseline comparison of other business classifications, liquor stores, salons, etc. Therefore, this data does not support staff’s argument in a meaningful way.”
Titus took issue with city staff’s contention that the definition of service stations does not consider forms of fuel, and is outdated, and that the definition of the use should be refined to contemplate how natural gas and electric vehicle fueling stations are treated under the city’s zoning regulations. Calling this “staff speculation,” Titus said, “There is no way of knowing what will define a ‘service station’ in the future. Types of products offered will be predicated by market demand. It is the responsibility of providers of service stations to satisfy the wants of its customers. Those wants will be predicated on the types of vehicles people choose to drive, whether they are gasoline, natural gas, propane, or electric.”
With regard to the justification of imposing the moratorium on the basis that it would, in the finding’s words, “allow staff to evaluate the typical operations of a service station in greater detail, the technical standards that should apply to them, and, incorporate necessary requirements and regulations that will minimize their operational and site development impacts,” Titus countered that “It is pretentious for staff to promote socially-controlled centralized planning by dictating ‘technical standards.’ It is impossible for staff to evaluate ‘typical operations of a service station.’ Operations are predicated on the development, manufacture and distribution of products and services. In a capitalist economy, this involves risk. Service stations must adapt to market demand, as previously noted. Those that do will stay in business; those that don’t will go out of business.”
City staff’s assertion that tax revenue from the city’s service stations will “decline over time in part due to the availability and preference of alternative energy sources for powering an automobile,” Titus said, “is speculation. No scientific proof for this claim was presented.”
Likewise, he dismissed as “conjecture” staff’s contention that “electric cars powered by batteries are becoming more commonplace [and] It is estimated that by 2030, more than a one third of all new vehicles sold will be fully or partially electric powered.” He disputed the assertion in the statement of findings that “As battery charging can occur at home, work, or in parking lots, the need for service stations is likely to decline in a corresponding manner.” This, Titus said, “is based on assumptions; therefore, the likelihood of service stations declining in the future is speculation.”
Titus dismissed as a “false statement” staff’s claim, layered into the statement of findings ratified by the city council, that “The declining demand for gasoline due to changes in technology and consumer preferences may increase competition among the existing service stations in the city such that closures may occur over time.” Rather, he said, “Due to changes in technology, existing service stations will adapt to consumer wants and adapt their business models accordingly in order to stay in business and make a profit.”
In the same way, he maintained, the council’s finding that “as hydrogen, liquid petroleum service, compressed natural gas service, and biofuels become more readily adopted as power sources for automobiles, conventional service stations could potentially become obsolete or unable to provide the demand for these alternative fuels,” is based on assumption and unsupported by any tangible evidence.
Titus further disputed that ride sharing services and mobility alternatives will become more popular in the future to the point that reduced personal automobile usage will result and reduce demand for service stations of any kind, and that the use of alternative fuels and ride sharing will result in service stations becoming fiscal “underperformers.”
Titus told the city council he was “opposed to the moratorium because staff has proposed central economic planning in regards to service stations in the city. At its core, this ordinance is anti-free market. The staff report tries to disparage honest business practices through speculation statements.”
During Wednesday afternoon’s session, Councilwoman Kristine Scott said, “I’m glad we’re taking a look [at the moratorium concept]. I’m not a fan of moratoriums. I don’t like moratoriums, but in this case I feel that hitting the pause button… is appropriate for this. Let’s look at the data, look at what we’re doing and [find out if] these are the best options, the best uses for this land. I also understand that we do have some applications in and I understand people put in time and energy so far into those applications, so I would also recommend we do a moratorium exempting those.”
Councilman Ryan Hutchison, while saying that the city should consider putting “more detailed standards and operational requirements in the city’s development code [including] regulating hours of operation, lighting, security, safety, proximity to neighborhoods, residents, and vehicles queuing on the streets,” indicated such examinations should be made for all types of commercial development and should not be confined simply to gas stations. He said a consideration of new development standards would be “a great thing for every single development. I want to be clear: I don’t think that I would ever support currently a long-term ban on the development of gas stations in the city. I think that’s something the market will bring about as a necessity rather than through government. I also think people that made that significant investment [into planning and seeking permitting for a gas station should] be able to continue and that we’re not hitting the pause button for them who are already working on an application.”
Mayor L. Dennis Michael expressed the view that the government should exercise its oversight in shaping what sort of development is to come into the city. He seemed to suggest that the judgment of municipal officials should have at least equal weight as that of the private sector in determining what commercial and other uses, and the types of those uses, are best for the community and its residents.
“I guess I’ve got a concern,” Michael said. “Some of those concerns rest with the competition oversaturation [and] what happens to the older, more well-established stations that don’t have the kind of good-looking, nice amenities available to residents, and we start ending up seeing stations, like the two that are vacant, go out of business. Now we have a brownfield problem when we have a developer come in who wants to do something really cool, but he’s got a huge expense in remediation on the site. I want to thank the staff for your recognition that, hey, this seems like we’re getting a real spike in these kind of facilities – service stations, gas stations, however you want to call them, and convenience stores – and at least at this point in one specific area of the city.” Michael indicated he was concerned that the proliferation of gas stations with convenient store components, with their propensity to locate at a corner of major intersections, would preclude the development of a substantial shopping center containing a grocery store in the southwest quadrant of the city, which he said was devoid of such uses.
“I would support taking a pause to look at this a little more deeply,” he said. “I would like to find out, and maybe staff could do an analysis on, what would happen if a number – three or four – gas stations came in one centralized area of the community, what that would do to the existing market of the other stations that are currently probably struggling themselves. I just think we need to be careful. We have only so much vacant land left in this city, and we certainly need to look for the highest and best use, and be patient… and look towards what opportunities, what potential risk we are running into when we can never get back what we gave up.”
The mayor said he would support up to a two-year moratorium on any new applications for gas stations.
The council deferred voting on the moratorium until the regular meeting held that evening, at which time its members voted unanimously to put it into place.
Titus lamented that “In a convoluted argument, staff conflates service stations as becoming fiscal ‘underperformers’ in regards to the contribution they make to city tax revenues. They speculate about their profitability potential based on probabilities of future products and services they might offer.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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