Gas Stations & Convenience Stores
If you’re concerned about a proposed gas station-convenience store anywhere in the USA then contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 (call-text) or Rklein@ceds.org today for an initial no-cost discussion of strategy options. Please don’t hesitate. Delay almost always decreases the likelihood of success.
While convenience stores, gas stations and vehicle repair facilities provide many benefits, they can have a severe quality of life impact when allowed too close to homes and other inappropriate locations. In fact, new stores and stations can even harm existing establishments, particularly when predatory pricing is employed to eliminate competition.
In this webpage we offer advice on how homeowners, neighborhood associations, and even store or station owners can get the benefits of these establishments without the negative impacts. If you’re looking for more then advice consider retaining CEDS to manage your campaign to design the impacts out of an otherwise sound proposal or to defeat a poorly-planned retail project.
We can review a proposed convenience store, gas station or repair facility for the impacts listed below and more. An example of a CEDS analysis can be viewed by clicking: Gas Station-Convenience Store Strategy Analysis Example. This analysis prompted decision-makers to deny special exception-conditional use permits for a proposed convenience store-gas station. To see the many places around the nation where we’ve helped others, see the CEDS Case Map.
Between our unique Politically Oriented Advocacy, Equitable Solutions and Smart Legal Strategy approaches we can triple the likelihood of success at a fraction of the cost. Contact us at Rklein@ceds.org or 410-654-3021 for a no-cost initial discussion of strategy options.
A Bit of Convenience Store, Gas & Service Station Background
The following will help you understand the context of these three uses. This context is critical to formulating a strategy to protect a neighborhood or the environment from the impacts of a convenience store, gas or service station proposed for the wrong site or suffering from a flawed design.
Convenience Stores: When the first convenience store opened in 1927, they were mostly small, Mom and Pop establishments where one could buy snacks, basic kitchen-health supplies, beverages, prepared foods, etc. Beginning in the 1980s, convenience stores were combined with gas stations. Today, a growing number offer vehicle maintenance and repair as well.
Today, there are more than 140,000 convenience stores in the USA. Convenience is indeed the key to the success of these stores. It is this attribute which prompts 80% of Americans to prefer shopping at a convenience store vs. supermarkets. In fact, 100 million Americans shop at convenience stores every day.
Gas Stations: The number of gas stations in the U.S. has been declining. In 1994, there were 202,800 gas stations across the nation, but by 2012 the number was down to 156,065. The decline can be attributed to cars getting more miles per gallon, thus needing less gas, as well as new stations adding many more pumps. The decline is also due to supermarkets, big-box stores and others using cheap gas outside to draw customers inside. CEDS developed a spreadsheet approach for determining if a need exists for additional gas stations in an area. For further detail see Assessing Gas Station Need below.
Vehicle Repair Facilities: Known as service stations or garages, vehicle repair facilities are essential services. But these facilities can cause impacts greater than those associated with just a convenience store or a gas station. Primary impacts include:
- Noise from body repair, tire changes and large truck or bus diesel engines;
- Air pollution due to diesel engines idling for extended periods, paint vapors or dust emitted from body refinishing; and
- The release of a variety of polluting materials that settle on parking lots and other impervious surfaces which then wash into nearby ground or surface waters with each rain.
Hypermarts, Supermarkets & Big-Box Stores: Known as Hypermarts, large combination convenience stores with sit-down space and numerous fueling positions are becoming increasingly common. Hypermarts, supermarkets and big-box stores that are part of regional or national chains can buy and sell gas for less than traditional, locally-owned gas stations. This usually causes one or more of these older businesses to go out of business when one of these big newcomers opens.
A number of studies have shown that local economies are better off with locally owned businesses compared to those which are part of national chain. These studies show that on average 48% of each purchase at a locally-owned business circulates through the local economy compared to less than 14% of purchases from national chain stores.
The following studies show that hypermarts can force existing gas stations to lower their prices which may eventually cause them to go out of business.
A study conducted in the Tucson, AZ area documented that:
On average, if a gas station is located within 0.5 road miles of a hypermart, the stations price is pushed down about 2.1 cents, and if it’s located between 0.5 and 1.5 miles, the price is lowered by 1.2 cents. This effect of a hypermart is substantially greater than the effect of the addition of a traditional gas station in the areas.
In the Nashville, TN area researchers found that hypermarts:
…do in fact place statistically and economically significant downward pressure on the prices of nearby gas stations. The magnitude of the price impact implies the entrance of a hypermart into a local market will cut an average gas station’s profit in half. The findings reaffirm others who have noted the sizable impact large, low-priced firms have on their smaller competitors.
Abandoned gas station sites are difficult to convert to other uses. In the meantime, they deteriorate causing the area to appear rundown, lowering property value. This impact is addressed below under Blighting.
Gas Station & Convenience Store Potential Impacts
Every community has boarded up stores and even entire blocks or shopping centers that have been abandoned. These lost commercial opportunities are frequently poorly maintained, making them unattractive and unpleasant neighbors. This is known as blight.
One of the causes of blight is excessive or unfair competition. There is an upper limit to the number of retail establishments any area can handle. In urban areas with high traffic volumes there can be a thriving gas station-convenience store on nearly every corner. Whereas rural settings may only support a single store at only one out of every ten or so major intersections.
Some localities have adopted limits on how many convenience stores or gas stations can exist within a given area. Others require a market analysis to demonstrate that an area can accommodate another store. But applying these planning tools can be tricky in situations where an aging c-store would be put out of business by a new establishment with four times the floor space. One option though is to provide strong incentives for the new store owners to buy out the old and redevelop the site.
Originally, most commercial uses were located in downtown areas. With the automobile new convenience stores and other commercial uses were increasingly located in strips along major highways. This ugly form of growth is only accessible by car.
Modern planning philosophy calls for locating convenience stores in neighborhood scale commercial areas accessible by walking, bicycling or car. Of course there will always be a need to locate convenience stores and gas stations along major highways. However, managing growth to bring convenience stores and other retail outlets back to downtown areas could do much to revitalize blighted areas and enhance our quality of life.
Convenience store hold-ups account for about 6% of all robberies in the nation. One study noted that:
“Convenience store employees suffer from high rates of workplace homicide, second only to taxicab drivers.”
A study of the relationship between violence of other factors found an increasing trend as the number of alcohol outlets in an area rose. Following is a principal finding from this study:
“A larger number of alcohol outlets and a higher rate of violence might be expected in poorer neighborhoods or in neighborhoods with a larger population young people. But as the research described above shows, even when levels of poverty and the age and the ethnic background of residents are taken into account, a high density of outlets is strongly related to violence regardless of a neighborhood’s economic, ethnic or age status.”
Another study only noted an increase in crime in relation to number of alcohol outlets in low-income communities.
A National Association of Convenience Stores report noted that the following steps were the most effective in reducing convenience store crime:
- cash control (by frequently putting excess cash in an in-store safe);
- locating a store where there are few escape routes (e.g. nearby highways);
- good lighting;
- visibility (locating stores in areas with lots of passersby); and
- employee training.
Health Effects: Is It Safe to Live Near a Gas Station
A number of compounds injurious to human health are released from gas stations during vehicle fueling and from underground storage tank vents. These compounds include: benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene (BTEX). Measures to reliably resolve these adverse health effects are not employed at new gas stations.
Benzene is the gasoline constituent most harmful to human health. Adverse health effects of benzene include nausea, cancer, anemia, increased susceptibility to infections, and low birth weight. According to the World Health Organization Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality there is no safe level for benzene. The following research documents the extent of benzene releases from gas stations as well as adverse health effects:
- A 1993 study published by the Canadian petroleum industry found average benzene concentrations of 146 and 461 parts per billion (ppb) at the gas station property boundary in summer and winter, respectively.
- A 2001 study noted median ambient benzene levels of 1.9 ppb in houses up to 328 feet from a service station.
- A 2003-2004 study conducted in France documented a significant relationship between childhood leukemia and living near a gas station.
- A 2010 study conducted in Spain documented elevated air pollution within 100 meters (328 feet) of a gas station.
- In 2012, Brazilian researchers found that air quality was significantly degraded up to 150 meters (492 feet) from gas stations.
In 2005, the California Air Resources Board probably became the first in the U.S. to recommend a minimum public health safety zone between new gas stations and “sensitive land uses.” The recommendation appeared in Air Quality and Land Use Handbook: A Community Health Perspective. The pre-2005 studies referenced above and other research prompted the Board to recommend a minimum 300-foot separation distance between new gas stations and “sensitive land uses such as residences, schools, daycare centers, playgrounds, or medical facilities.” The State of California is widely recognized as having some of the most effective air pollution control requirements in the nation. Yet even with California controls a minimum separation is still required to protect public health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency echoed concerns about the health risk associated with gas station emissions in their School Siting Guidelines. The USEPA recommended screening school sites for potential health risk when located within 1,000 feet of a gas station.
The last section of this letter contains a sampling of the public health safety zones for new gas station adopted by other U.S. jurisdictions. Most call for a greater separation then the 300 feet recommended by the California Air Resources Board. The increasing safety zone distances were prompted by the growing body of research showing that adverse health effects extend further and further from gas stations. In fact, a 2019 study of U.S. gas stations found that benzene emissions from underground gasoline storage tank vents were sufficiently high to constitute a health concern at a distance of up to 518-feet. Also, the researchers noted:
“emissions were 10 times higher than estimates used in setback regulations [like that in the California handbook] used to determine how close schools, playgrounds, and parks can be situated to the facilities [gas stations].”
Prior to the 2019 study it was thought that most of the benzene was released at the pump during fueling. A 2015 paper noted the following bit of irony with regard to vapor recovery and harmful emissions from gas station storage tanks:
“It is important to note that vapor recovery at the nozzle can cause vapor releases at the storage tank, because vapors recovered at the nozzle are typically directed into the storage tank. The storage tank, in turn, can “breathe” and potentially release recovered vapors immediately or at a later time. A tank sucks in relatively uncontaminated air as the liquid fuel level drops in the tank due to vehicle refueling, and it releases vapors through the vent pipe into the atmosphere if the gas pressure increases and exceeds the cracking pressure of the pressure/vacuum valve, when fuel evaporates into unequilibrated gas in the headspace.”
The 2015 paper contained the following summary regarding the health implications of living, working or learning near a gas station:
“Health effects of living near gas stations are not well understood. Adverse health impacts may be expected to be higher in metropolitan areas that are densely populated. Particularly affected are residents nearby gas stations who spend significant amounts of time at home as compared to those who leave their home for work because of the longer period of exposure. Similarly affected are individuals who spend time close to a gas station, e.g., in close by businesses or in the gas station itself. Of particular concern are children who, for example, live nearby, play nearby, or attend nearby schools, because children are more vulnerable to hydrocarbon exposure.”
Idling engines, particularly those in large diesel trucks, emit a large quantity of particulates into the local atmosphere. These particulates can pose a significant health risk for those living near convenience store/truck stops.
Historic Resource Impacts
A historic resource may include a building or place where a significant event took place or an eminent figure once resided. The resource could also be an area, such as a Native American settlement. The event or building could date from just over 50 years ago to thousands of years past.
The goal of historic preservation professionals is to safeguard the setting of the resource from factors which might detract from one’s ability to understand what makes it significant. Of course there are few historic resources which would be compatible with a convenience store. But then there are exceptions, such as the “convenience stores” called “gift shops” which are present in many visitor centers.
Generally, a convenience store should not be located within view of a historic resource. In some situations this may include not only the resource proper but the access road too. Frequently, those wishing to locate a potentially incompatible facility near a historic resource will be required to prepare a sightline. As the name implies, the sightline is drawn from the most visible part of a proposed store to various points at the historic resource. The analysis shows whether hills, buildings or other features would block the store from view.
Lighting is essential to convenience store safety and profitability. We’re less likely to patronize a poorly lit store while criminals find this inviting. But too much lighting and area residents may suffer glare in their bedrooms or lose their view of the nighttime sky.
There’s a phenomenon known as ratcheting where one business installs bright lights. The new lights cause nearby establishments to look darker than before, so they install brighter lights and on the upward spiral goes. Ratcheting can greatly increase light trespass impacts to area residents.
Fortunately new LED lights and other approaches can make a convenience store safe and attractive. The lighting should be fully shielded and follow the latest recommendations of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA) along with those of the International Dark-Sky Association.
All of us who have taken our cars in for service are familiar with the many loud noises generated by repair facilities. Tire air guns produce a noise level of 104 dBA and the air chisels used in body shops emits 112 dBA. An accelerating diesel truck emits 114 dBA and even 100 dBA while idling. Make it a late-night or all-night establishment and you have a use which definitely does not belong near homes.
So how close is too close? CEDS recommends a minimum separation of 300 feet between homes and late-night/all-night stores. However, a site-specific noise analysis may show a lesser setback will adequately protect area homes. Such an analysis should distinguish between rural and urban settings. A nighttime noise level of 55 dBA may be OK in a city or suburb while 45 dBA is more appropriate for rural areas.
Nutrition & Food Swamps
Food Swamps are areas with a number of fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and other establishments offering few healthy, nutritional foods. The following more precise definition comes from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future adopted the definition…
“A food swamp is a place where unhealthy foods are more readily available than healthy foods. (Unhealthy foods include those that are dense in calories, high in sodium, and high in sugar.) Food swamps typically exist in food deserts, where there are limited options for purchasing healthy foods. For example, a food swamp might be an area where there is a predominance of small corner stores and carry-outs, but no healthy food sources, such as supermarkets or farmers markets.”
The USDA defines a food desert as:
- Urban Areas – a supermarket is not present within one mile, and
- Rural Areas – it’s ten miles or more to the nearest supermarket.
Following are a couple of other examples of adverse health effects associated with convenience stores.
- Poor, inner city neighborhoods tend to lack access to supermarkets with convenience stores and fast food establishments serving as poor substitutes. An East Harlem study found that children with a convenience store on their block were significantly more likely to have a high Body Mass Index.
- A higher rate of obesity was associated with the presence of convenience stores within a 10-minute walk of a school.
- A California study noted a 50% increase in smoking among adolescents exposed to tobacco advertising during weekly visits to small grocery, convenience or liquor stores;
Adding a convenience store lacking vegetables, fruit and other healthy choices to a food desert area or one with a number of existing “food swamp” establishments, would exacerbate adverse health effects. A convenience store could be healthier if it were located in an area accessible by walking or bicycling.
Many establishments use low gas prices to attract customers into the store. Profit margins are generally much higher on the goods sold in the store when compared to gas sales. National chains can purchase and sell gas at much lower prices when compared to smaller (Mom and Pop) stores.
It is not uncommon for the national chains to sell gas so low that it draws many customers away from existing stores. This is known as competition or predatory pricing depending upon whether you are the national chain or the Mom or Pop. However, once the competition goes out of business gas prices frequently rise. Some jurisdictions have laws against predatory pricing, but enforcement can be challenging.
How Do Gas Stations Affect Property Value
A convenience store or gas station can lower the value of nearby homes. One of the most plausible effects is on mortgages. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured mortgages are not available for properties located within 300 feet of tanks capable of storing 1,000 gallons or more of gasoline or other flammable-explosive materials. This restriction appears in Section 2-2M of the HUD Handbook Valuation Analysis for Single Family One- to Four- Unit Dwellings. Most gas station storage tanks have a capacity far in excess of 1,000 gallons.
The following excerpt from another U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development document shows that while gas station fires-explosions may not be common, they do occur often enough to be a concern for nearby residents:
“During the five-year period of 2004-2008, NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] estimates that U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 5,020 [fires] in service or gas station properties per year. These fires caused an annual average of two civilian deaths, 48 civilian fire injuries, and $20 million in direct property damage.”
A Georgia study noted that commercial development in general can depress residential property value when first completed then the effect diminishes with time. However, this study examined homes located 0.5- to 1.0-miles distant. Several studies documented that commercial uses can depress nearby property value but not at a distance. In King County, Washington commercial uses were found to depress residential properties within 300 feet but not beyond 1,000 feet or so.
River, Lake, Well-Water & Other Aquatic Resource Impacts
Because of the high traffic volume and refueling, convenience stores-gas stations pose an unusually severe threat to ground and surface waters. Adding vehicle servicing facilities increases the threat. One study found that contaminant levels in convenience store-gas station runoff were 5- to 30-times higher when compared to residential runoff. In another study researchers detected several compounds in vehicle repair facility runoff which were probable cancer-causing agents. These findings have prompted a number of states and local governments to list vehicle repair facilities as stormwater hotspots. USEPA guidance advises caution with regard to allowing hotspot runoff to infiltrate the soil, particularly in areas where drinking water is obtained through wells. The use of highly-effective stormwater Best Management Practices to treat repair facility runoff before it is infiltrated into the soil.
Fuel storage tanks and pipelines pose another source of contamination, though the design of both has improved dramatically over the past couple of decades. Spillage at the pump is a more likely source of fuel release into nearby waterways. In fact, Johns Hopkins University researchers found that an average of 40 gallons of gasoline is spilled at a typical gas station per year at the pumps. The JHU researchers also found that a significant portion of the spilled gasoline can migrate through the concrete pads at many fueling stations.
So how far should a gas station be from a well or surface waters to reduce the likelihood of contamination to a reasonable level? Well, the key question is actually how far can one anticipate that a plume of spilled gasoline will travel underground. One review of scientific studies of plume travel indicated that the 90th percentile distance is 400 feet. Add another 100 feet for installing grout curtains or other containment measures and a gas station should be no closer than 500 feet to a well, wetland, spring, stream, river, pond, lake, reservoir or tidal waters.
Best Management Practices (BMPs) are available that reduce the probability of contamination. One study indicated bioretention facilities could remove 80% – 95% of hydrocarbons in synthetic stormwater runoff. But even the most effective BMPs may not be enough if a store or station adjoins highly sensitive waters. For further suggestions see our aquatic resource impact assessment webpage.
The CEDS Traffic webpage provides detailed guidance on evaluating impacts to street and highway safety. In this section we offer guidance on some of the issues we’ve encountered while evaluating numerous convenience stores and gas station proposals. Due to space constraints we’ve only listed the more common issues.
As a rough rule of thumb, each proposed pump at a gas station generates about 100 to 130 trips per day. By “pump” we mean fueling position. The convenience store will generate 800 to 1,200 trips per day per 1,000 square feet. So a 2,000 square foot store with ten pumps would generate around 3,150 trips per day. We provide these numbers so you can compare them with those for a proposed store to see if they are in the right range. However, the standard reference is ITE’s Trip Generation manual.
With regard to safety, customers should not have to walk across vehicle travel lanes. Instead ample parking should be provided along the front and sides of the store. Yes, many customers will leave their car at the pump and walk to the store. But, again, this should be kept to a minimum by creating lots of spaces next to the store.
Delivery trucks, particularly long tractor-trailers, must be able to maneuver without encroaching upon parking spaces, fueling positions or other features. To the left is an exhibit from one of our cases involving an unusually small gas station site. With this exhibit our traffic engineer showed that large delivery trucks would strike cars at several fueling positions when attempting to navigate around the site. This issue was one of several that prompted the Board of Appeals to deny a special exception for this project.
In upscale areas, some convenience stores are almost attractive. But few homeowners would chose a convenience store as a prominent item in their viewshed. The problem is compounded if blighting forces owners to cut back on store upkeep or to close.
Well vegetated perimeters and other visual buffering methods can do much to reduce the impact. The buffer must be dense enough to achieve nearly 100% opacity. Dumpsters should be well screened with fencing or other methods. Trash receptacles must be regularly emptied. Of course local Code Enforcement must be up to the job of keeping store owners in compliance. For further guidance on this issue visit the CEDS webpage: Preserving Scenic Views From Your Home.
Assessing Gas Station Need
Over the years CEDS has researched the effects of many proposed convenience stores, gas stations and vehicle repair facilities. With regard to gas stations, the market area usually extends 0.5- to 1.5-miles. It takes about 3,000 to 6,000 people living or working within the market area to support a single gas station.
CEDS has developed a spreadsheet for determining if a market area will support a proposed gas station. Normally we would post the spreadsheet on a webpage like this along with instructions showing how you can run your own analysis. Unfortunately we’ve found that each area is unique and requires a fair bit of experience to develop an accurate analysis. But you can get a rough idea of need by seeing if 3,000 to 6,000 people live or work within a half to a mile and a half from the site. If you wish CEDS can run the analysis for you, but we would need to charge a modest fee.
Many local zoning ordinances allow planning commissions and other decision-makers to consider need when asked to act on a request to build another gas station. Need should also be factored into a decision about a zoning change. CEDS and our clients have convinced many decision-makers to deny approval for a poorly sited or badly designed project.
For guidance on how to research legal need requirements and decision-making precedents see Chapters 35 and 40 in our free 300-page book How To Win Land Development Issues. If you have any questions contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 or Rklein@ceds.org.
Good & Bad Convenience Store-Station Locations
Given the impacts and corrective measures described above, an optimum convenience store-gas station location would have the following characteristics:
- At least 500 feet from the nearest home; or
- Buffered so the store cannot be seen or heard from the nearest home;
- To preserve public health a minimum if 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools;
- Not within view of historic resources;
- At least 500 feet from wells, springs, streams, reservoirs or other highly sensitive ground or surface water resources;
- Accessible by foot and bike as well as cars;
- Convenience stores should be located at least a 10-minute walk (0.5 miles) from schools;
- Located in a downtown or neighborhood commercial area;
- Well lit, but not to the point of causing light trespass into nearby homes;
- In an area with many passersby and few escape routes for criminals; and
- In an area where the market can accommodate a new store without putting existing ones out of business.
Preventing Impacts Through Zoning
Zoning is used by many local governments to guide growth to locations where benefits are maximized with minimal harm to quality of life. Zoning ordinances also contain height limits, separation distances, use restrictions and other requirements to further enhance compatibility. Ensuring that your local zoning ordinance contains these safeguards is the best way to minimize the possibility of a new establishment impacting a neighborhood.
It is difficult to envision a situation where a convenience stores and gas station would be a compatible use in or adjacent to a residential area. This is why most zoning ordinances restrict these uses to commercially-zoned properties. A number of localities also require a permit known as a special exception, conditional use or special use permit. The permitting process includes a public hearing to determine if the use will cause excessive impacts.
Following are examples from around the U.S. of various safeguards with regard to the public health effects of air pollutants released at gas stations:
- Islip, NY: No gasoline service station premises shall be permitted to locate within 200 feet of a school, playground, recreation center, public library, or church, except as hereinafter provided.
- Blaine, MN: Automobile service station and minor auto repair. Gasoline sales must be a minimum of one thousand (1,000) feet from public school buildings that serve students primarily in grades 6th through 12th and a minimum of four hundred (400) feet from public school buildings that serve students primarily in grades Kindergarten through 5th Grade.
- Montgomery County, MD: Any Filling Station facility designed to dispense a minimum of 3.6 million gallons per year must be located at least 500 feet from the lot line of any public or private school, or any park, playground, day care center, or any outdoor use categorized as a civic and institutional use or a Recreation and Entertainment use.
- Borough of Bergenfield, NJ: Location of exits and entrances. No gas station, or vehicular repair service shop shall be located within 300 feet of the following uses when located along the same street or the same block: schools, playgrounds, churches, hospitals, libraries, institutions for dependent children, or other similar places of public assembly.
Here are examples of other safeguards:
- New Hampshire: DES’s rules for the siting of UST (Underground Storage Tank) systems at new sites include the following setbacks:
- 500′ from public water supplies (PWSs)
- 250′ between gasoline USTs and private wells
- 75′ between any UST and surface water.
- Citrus Heights, CA: Distance requirements. No on-sale or off-sale liquor establishment shall be maintained within 500 feet of any other on-sale or off-sale liquor establishment, or within 500 feet from the following “consideration points”: Schools (public or private); Churches or other places of worship; Hospitals, clinics, or other health care facilities; and 4. Public parks and playgrounds and other similar uses.
If you’re concerned about a proposed establishment and your local zoning ordinance lack these safeguards, then consider asking local elected officials for an amendment. If a convenience store-gas station application has or is about to be submitted then consider asking that it and all other applications be put on hold while officials study the best way to update zoning requirements.
Recommendations for siting criteria can be found in the preceding section of this webpage headed Good & Bad Convenience Store-Station Locations.