Highland Joins Rancho Cucamonga In Pursuing Moratorium On Filling Stations

The City of Highland late last month became the second city in San Bernardino County this year to impose a moratorium on the construction of new service stations.
At present, within 18.6-square mile, 55,629 population Highland there are twelve existing gas stations, with a thirteenth station nearly constructed and anticipated to be operational before the end of the year. Within the past year, the city received four applications to construct service stations, of which three were for new stations and one for an expansion of an existing filling station to include a car wash. Two of the four applications received approvals. The third application, consisting of the addition of a car wash/expansion is pending, scheduled for public hearing on September 21, 2021. The fourth proposal, a large new fueling station with gasoline, diesel, electrical vehicle charging stations, convenience store and quick serve restaurant components, is yet to be fleshed out in all of its particulars.
At its August 10, 2021 meeting, the city council expressed concern about a glut of stations in the city, and directed city staff to prepare an interim urgency ordinance temporarily halting approval of further gas stations the city council could consider.
According to a report authored and prepared for the August 24 city council meeting by Assistant Community Development Director Kim Stater and reviewed by Community Development Director Lawrence A. Mainez and City Attorney Maricela Marroquin which was provided to the city council by City Manager Joseph Hughes, it would be wise for the city to hold off on initiating new gas station projects while city staff drafts an update of the city’s code for such uses.
Stater’s report relates, “Five of the stations are located along the Base Line corridor and six along the Greenspot Road/5th Street corridor.“
Those 11 gas stations, Stater wrote, are located at or near “prominent entries to the community, and represent the city’s most eligible properties for quality, comprehensive retail, business park and industrial development. Service stations now dominate many of those gateways with the looming possibility of more. It is important for the city to maintain its general plan policies and vision to ensure a ‘mix of uses attractive to broad segments of Highland’s population [and] protect surrounding single-family neighborhoods from incompatible uses [and] ensure quality commercial and residential development [and] concentrate office and big box retail uses along 5th Street and require commercial development to provide functional public spaces and/or plazas for shoppers and visitors.’ Moreover, the proliferation of service stations in these areas of the city inequitably increases health risks for the residents in these locations due to the potential contaminants present at service stations. Their location near sensitive uses increases the risk of contaminant exposure to vulnerable populations. This problem is magnified in instances where a service station may become obsolete and become a ‘brownfield’ site, i. e. a property [at] which the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance(s), pollutant(s), or contaminant(s). Exposure to the types of contaminants that are present, or are potentially present, at service stations threatens the public health, safety or welfare of neighboring sensitive uses.”
Furthermore, according to Stater, “At the intersection of Palm Avenue and 5th Street, there is an existing station at the southeast corner, a newly entitled station at the southwest corner, and a proposed project at the northeast corner. This overconcentration reduces the opportunity for more appropriate, and highly desired business park and industrial uses that are planned for at this gateway to the San Bernardino International Airport. The city’ s development standards for service stations, described in Highland Municipal Code Section 16. 44.200 Service Stations, were adopted in 1994 and modified in 2009. Now, more than 12 years old, this section should be updated to discuss the new fueling technology, state mandates, improved design standards and requirements. There should be an acknowledgment of current water quality management plan requirements for uses with the potential for hazardous substances, pollutants and/or contaminants.”
Stater propounded that “If passed, a moratorium would allow staff the opportunity [to] evaluate these issues in greater detail and adopt updated standards and operational requirements. The adoption of a moratorium will allow for a comprehensive analysis on how to manage and reduce the impact of additional service stations in the city. The city will be able to analyze their potential impacts on the public health such as the potential for contaminant exposure near sensitive receptors such as residences, impacts on public safety, impacts on the public welfare due to the disproportionate concentration of service stations in certain residential areas of the city and potential for blight in connection with the declining demand for gas. These studies will help the council and city’s planning division determine how best to prevent impacts to public health, safety and welfare, and evaluate the general plan, development code and zoning map, and develop appropriate regulations and/or appropriate zones to achieve positive outcomes for the city’ s residents, business community, property owners and developers. Service stations demand a significant draw on police services. The fiscal impact of calls for services and time spent at the service stations will be analyzed and provided if the council elects to establish a moratorium.”
When the council took the matter up at the August 24 meeting, there was some degree of tension evident between city officials and both real estate and development interests who have designs, in various states of progression, on constructing filling stations within the city limits in the future.
There is a contingent of business interests who feel the city and city staff are overreaching in attempting to impose central economic planning with regards to service stations in the city. They feel the free market should dictate how many or how few filling stations should be allowed to operate within city limits. There has been a suggestion that the proliferation of electric cars powered by batteries, natural gas and ethanol as well as further changes in technology will bring about a decline in the demand for gasoline and ultimately result in the the closures of existing and potentially-to-be-built filling stations. This has been cited as a justification for imposing a moratorium on gas station projects. Such an approach precludes the rights of investors and entrepreneurs to engage in the give-and-take of risk and prosperity that are an intrinsic element of American enterprise, those opposed to the moratorium maintain. They say there is nothing to prevent the owner/operators of gas stations from adopting their businesses to accommodate electric, natural gas and ethanol-fueled vehicles. Service stations are no different from other businesses, which must adapt to market demand, those free-marketeers insist. Those fueling stations that adapt to the marketplace will stay in business, they say, and those that don’t will go out of business. The types of vehicles people choose to drive will drive the nature of the market, they say, and the market should dictate what risk entrepreneurs are willing to take. The government should not interfere in that calculation, capitalism purists maintain.
The only control the city legitimately has in determining where and how many gas stations should be allowed consists of its zoning codes, they say. With proper zoning, which the city presumably has already established, there will be no greater threat to public health, safety, and general welfare represented by building gas stations than by constructing any other type of business in the city, they say. City officials should have faith in the zoning codes the city has already established, they insist.
David Eady, who is representing his mother in her initiative to establish a gas station at the northeast corner of Palm Avenue and 5th Street, accused the city of seeking to obstruct certain gas station proponents, including his mother. The property in question is the one that is under consideration in a pre-application process, consisting of gasoline vending islands, diesel pumps, electric vehicle charging stations, a convenience store and quick serve restaurant pads.
His mother’s property is zoned for use as a fueling station, and the city’s move to place a moratorium on gas stations comes at a crucial time for his mother, as the property is now in escrow to a proposed developmental concern, Eady said.
“This is about the seventh time we’ve been in escrow before the city squashed the deal,” Eady said. “We’re in the middle of another escrow and I’m seeing the same thing happen again. This [moratorium] seems to be directed at our property.”
Eady warned the council that it should “be very careful how we consider this moratorium.”
A representative of the company considering the purchase of the property from Eady’s mother, who was not identified by name, said, “I hope this moratorium does not affect us, because we are en route to our plans right now. We are in the pre-application process, and we [have] already invested $15,000 to apply for doing the application process and the plans, etcetera, so we want to give our notice to the city council in the city chamber that we are working diligently, and we hope it doesn’t affect us.”
Councilman John Timmer, while saying that updating and revamping of the city’s standards on the development of filling stations is overdue, indicated  he was skeptical about imposing a moratorium and abridging the property rights of those who own or are looking to develop fueling stations on property that has zoning to allow such uses.
A moratorium is tantamount to “changing the rules” midstream, Timmer said. Timmer said he would be reluctant to extend the moratorium beyond the initial 45 days.
Highland Community Development Director Lawrence Mainez, however, said it was likely that the city staff would require more than 45 days to update the city’s standards, and a request for at least a single extension of the moratorium, for 10 months and 15 days, would be requested.
Ultimately, on a motion by Councilman Larry McCallon, seconded by Council Member Anaeli Solano, the council voted to adopt an interim ordinance establishing a moratorium on the approval of land use entitlements for new service stations and prohibiting the expansion of the number of fueling pumps at existing stations by anything less than a four-fifths vote. Despite Timmer’s expression of reluctance to support a moratorium and his additional misgivings of seeing that moratorium extended, even given Mainez’s prediction that such an extension would take place, the council ratified the motion with a 5-to-0 vote. The motion shut the door on the consideration of the project on the property owned by Eady’s mother.
In April, the Rancho Cucamonga City Council imposed a moratorium on gas stations.
-Mark Gutglueck

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