There were a number of jaw-droppers in the recent articles about DC’s law prohibiting full-service gas stations from being turned into anything else. First – the man who owns around half of all District-area stations nets – nets! – almost $800 million annually. That’s borderline Bezos money. Second – apparently a significant number of District residents drive to Maryland or Virginia to get marginally cheaper gas. You people do know that you’re using gas to drive to and from Maryland and Virginia, don’t you?! Even if you value your time at literally zero, you’re still probably only saving a few cents.
But yeah, the biggest jaw-dropper was probably the existence of the law itself. In short, if you own a full-service gas station, the District forbids you from selling it to developers, or even converting into a non-full-service gas station. The law dates back to the late Seventies, when the City Council imposed a moratorium on any more gas station conversions, which at that time was apparently a problem. At the same time, they set up a Gas Station Advisory Board, made up of political appointees who could grant individual waivers if a gas station owner could prove they were selling their station because of “financial hardship.” If you’re cynical, you probably think that sounds like the Council came up with a solution for a problem that didn’t exist, and then set up a committee who’d “consider” your waiver if you in turn “considered” their need for political contributions, etc. Shame on you! (Okay, I was thinking it too.)
The Council made the law even more stringent back in 2014, and then-Mayor Vincent Gray signed the bill even though he noted that it may violate the Constitution. (Mary Cheh, one of the bill’s sponsors, and a constitutional law professor in her own right, disagreed.) Since then, other councilmembers have occasionally found workarounds for the law; when two Georgetown gas stations wanted to convert to condos, Councilman Jack Evans passed a bill exempting them from the moratorium as long as the Zoning Board got final approval on the plans. And more recently, District Attorney General Karl Racine found that not only were the advisory board’s Council-appointed members a violation of the law, but that gas station owners could, actually, convert their stations into whatever they wanted – if they paid a $20,000 fine.
While a measly twenty grand is a drop in the bucket considering that most of the condo projects looking to replace these stations will costs tens of millions, the $20K loophole does give the law the vaguely unseemly air of a cash grab. Which might be what it actually is. After all, though the District claims that local gas stations are a vital public service, the number of stations in the rest of the country has been steadily declining for years. In the last decade, the number of gas stations in the US went down by almost a quarter; and yet in the District, the number is artificially frozen. And all the factors are working against the gas station business model – everything from the drop in car ownership, the rise in ridesharing, increasing environmental regulations (gas stations are notorious polluters), to the imminent rise of self-driving (and probably electric) vehicles. It’s only a matter of time before gas station owners will be happy to pony up $20,000 to get out of the business.
But it might be even pettier than that. The District actually tried to pass anti-trust legislation on 2011 specifically targeting Joe Mamo, the $800 million man who owns half the gas stations in DC. Mamo scuttled the legislation at the last minute after hiring lobbyists and even getting the Congressional Black Caucus to send the Council a letter of support on his behalf. Internet commenters have noted that many of Mamo’s stations are cash-only, and speculated that the Council’s anti-Mamo push might have been in response to dodged taxes. If the subsequent strengthening of the gas station moratorium, in 2014, was a backdoor attempt at punishing Mamo, that would be a shame; after all, the guy may own most of the stations in DC, but he doesn’t own all of them. The law hurts independent owners just as much, and one of them, the owner of a Shell station in Petworth, filed suit against the District last week. The man wants to convert the site into a 57-unit condo building, and claims that by preventing him from doing so, the District is violating the Fifth Amendment. If a judge agrees with him, DC’s weirdest law could become a footnote in the history books.