Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

If you run a business in DC, the city can’t force you to keep running it — unless you run a full service gas station and can’t get approval from the Gas Station Advisory Board (GSAB). Unfortunately, the GSAB has not had members since 2008, so there's no one to get approval from. This GSAB law effectively prevents DC gas stations from being replaced by other things.

Without the option to petition the GSAB to close their service station, a landowner in Petworth is suing the city. The owner wants to sell the land to a developer who will turn it into housing. 

Why do we even have a Gas Station Advisory Board?

In the 1970s, many gas stations in DC were converting from full service gas stations — that is, places where mechanics can fix your car — into “gas and go” stations without additional car-support services. From the 1979 committee report on the bill, the city banned conversion of these stations in order to “protect the needs of the driving public." The GSAB was created to advise the mayor on whether to grant an exemption to the conversion ban.

Over time, the law proved ineffective. In 2014 Mayor Vincent Gray proposed omnibus legislation eliminating boards and commissions without current members or relevant purpose, including the GSAB. In response, the Council voted to strengthen the power of the GSAB to restrict the closure of full service gas stations, defined as where cars can be serviced by mechanics. The GSAB received expanded powers, but both Mayors Gray and Muriel Bowser refused to appoint members to the Board.

The closed gas station at 22nd and P Streets. Image by the author.

The GSAB reviews petitions for exemptions from operating service stations. Crucially, only service station operators are entitled to file a petition, and the GSAB may only support granting an exemption when the operator is “experiencing extreme financial hardship” and when there is another service station within one mile. If the GSAB supports an exemption, the Mayor has 60 days to determine if they are in agreement with the board.

Property owners are trying to redevelop gas stations anyway

Since the Gas Station Advisory Board has not been constituted for nearly 12 years and property owners have no one to petition, there is no way for a property owner to redevelop a service station. However, that hasn’t stopped developers in Georgetown and Dupont Circle.

In 2016, a developer in Georgetown wanted to redevelop the service station at Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street. Rather than going through the GSAB process, the District Council passed emergency legislation exempting service stations which applied for Zoning Commission relief between May 2 and August 1 — theoretically applying to any service station but really just applying to the station in Georgetown.

Again in 2016, the landowner of the Sunoco Station at 22nd and P Streets in Dupont Circle (within my ANC Single Member District) applied for historic preservation review of a nine-story residential building. After receiving a staff report recommending significant revisions, the applicant withdrew the application and seem to have put redevelopment plans on hold — but not before terminating the month-to-month lease of the service station operator on December 31 of that year.

Image by Jamelle Bouie used with permission.

After closing a gas station within the District of Columbia, environmental regulations require gas pumps and underground tanks to be removed within sixty days. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) processed these permits without reference to the GSAB.

In response, ANC 2B sent a resolution asking for the service station to be reopened and for the city to enforce the law regarding closure of the service station. In response, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) issued a letter determining that a $20,000 fine and suspension of owner’s or operator’s license may be issued by the Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) for illegally closing a service station.

However, an ANC request for DOEE to fine the developer $20,000 for terminating the lease to operate the service station was rejected, because the law only allows for imposition of the fine on the service station operator and fining a small business owner who lost their business due to termination of a lease would be counterproductive.

The GSAB can’t just be ignored — well, kind of

Just like you can’t build a building if DCRA is slow in issuing the permit to build, you can’t legally ignore the retail station conversion ban exemption process just because there are no members of the GSAB.

Ironically, the OAG letter says the GSAB (if it were to have members) would violate the separation of powers principle of DC's Home Rule Act because it has membership appointed by both the Mayor (four members) and the Council (one member). However, a landowner still cannot ignore the process.

That being said, the experience of the Sunoco Station in Dupont Circle is instructive. Lacking approval of the GSAB won’t stop DOEE or DCRA from issuing permits to remove the infrastructure that allows gas stations to function, and DOEE won’t fine a developer for causing the closure of a service station. There appears to be limited recourse if property owners just ignore this law.