Last year, the DC council passed a little noticed law designed to force gas stations to stay open. While the intent of the law was to privilege driver convenience over the property rights of gas station owners, the impact may be felt particularly in Georgetown.
The Washington Post first brought this preposterous law to attention last month. They wrote:
The council has prohibited the sale of property containing a gas station for “any other use,” or even the conversion of a full-service operation to a gas-and-go — without prior approval from something called the Gas Station Advisory Board. Under the law, enacted to little fanfare last fall, the only exception is “extreme financial hardship,” as the D.C. government defines it. Also, there must be an “equivalent” station a mile or less away to take the departing one’s place.
Prior to this legislation, some were questioning the need for a Gas Station Advisory Board at all. Rather than agree with that, the Council doubled down and declared by fiat that no gas stations may close unless the government says so.
This is a virtually unprecedented display of central planning. Sure the government often puts a cap on certain uses in certain areas (e.g. the liquor license moratorium) but to mandate an incredibly narrow and specific commercial use for a property is significantly more invasive.
This will impact Georgetown directly. Right now two gas stations are to be sold to Eastbanc, who plans on constructing new housing in place of the gas stations. A third gas station (the Exxon at Q and Wisconsin) is also under contract with plans being developed to construct housing. With this law, it is unclear whether any of these projects will go through.
Maybe the disappearance of gas stations inconveniences you. This is what happens when your business is no longer more valuable to the landowner than the potential business from a new use. It’s a real bummer when a shop you love closes! GM laments that all the time! But aside from a half-serious proposal to influence who can rent commercial space in Georgetown, GM would never propose something as self-centered and entitled as legislation mandating that the current use of a commercial space must continue indefinitely.
It’s a real testament to the privilege automobile-owners have, even in a place like DC where fewer than half the residents commute by car. Does DC mandate that housing remain affordable for all? No. Does it mandate that healthy and cheap food is universally available? Nope. Does it mandate that desirable things like bakeries, coffee shops and news stands remain conveniently located? No. But subject a car-owner to even the flicker of the vagaries of the free market and heavens will be moved to prevent it.
If car-owners’ business is not enough to support four gas stations in Georgetown, then maybe it’s not the best use of scarce land for there to be four gas stations in Georgetown? Not according to the Council.