Commission Votes to Reopen Hearing on Gas Station Plan

By MANDY LOCKE

One week after the Martha's Vineyard Commission rejected a gas station slated for Tisbury's State Road corridor, Tisbury Fuel Service principals asked the commission to take a step back and reopen the public hearing for their proposed High Point Lane station.

While commission members wrangled over the details of information they hope to hear in the next phase of the public hearing, a majority of members acceded to the developers' request.

The Tisbury Fuel Service project - sweetened by a promise to sell discounted gas to Islanders - stirred an outcry from other gas station proprietors who feared the effects of a new entrant in the business.

The protests from the mom-and-pop stations up-Island clearly registered with commission members Sept. 19 - they cited the economic threat to existing businesses as the primary reason for unanimously denying the Gervais and Goldsborough gas station proposed for 412 State Road. Resistance to allowing a new entrant into a limited demand market resonated again at a land use planning committee review of Tisbury Fuel Service last week, when a group of five commission members recommended a denial of the project to the full commission.

"We'd like to have the chance to talk about this in an open forum," developer Sean Conley said, requesting the commission reopen the public hearing.

"[Your concern] took us quite by surprise. I thought we'd addressed all your concerns, but his came out of the blue," he added.

The applicant expressed frustration at this unforeseen sticking point. "We didn't know you needed such a study. It's not on the checklist," Mr. Conley said, referring to a list of reports the commission requests for each new development of regional impact.

The developers asked for an opportunity to examine more closely the issue of financial impact on competitors.

"We urge you not to make the decision based on innuendo, gossip or hearsay," Mr. Conley added.

Nearly all gas station owners pleaded with commission members during the public hearings, asking that Tisbury Fuel Service be denied because it would divide the Island gasoline market - estimated at 10 million to 12 million gallons yearly. No pleas came more loudly and clearly than those from the Jenkinson family, owners of Up-Island Automotive in West Tisbury.

"I put my faith and hopes in the Martha's Vineyard Commission to help protect local businesses run by local Islanders from being run out of business by big promises and cheap promises," Pat Jenkinson said during one public hearing.

Commission members expressed concerns that a State Road station would force Up-Island Automotive and Menemsha Texaco to fold - eliminating all fuel stations up-Island.

Commission members agreed that a study of the economic impact on competing stations must be conducted by a third-party consultant, not a firm hired by the applicants. The developers, however, must fund the independent evaluation.

"I wouldn't be comfortable with anyone but an independent party. Sometimes these studies turn into advocacy instead of an objective analysis," commission member Linda Sibley said.

The developer will discuss the mechanics of the study with commission staff and members at a land use planning committee meeting this month.

The denial of the Gervais and Goldsborough station for fear of harm to existing businesses initiated questions about the commission's role in regulating the number and size of suppliers within a given market.

Expressing relief that the applicants had asked to study the economic impact issue, commission member Marcia Cini said: "We could have been turning down a legally risky path - a public agency shoring up private business."

Mr. Conley also wondered if the commission has stepped onto a slippery slope.

"They're saying we don't need another gas station. How many clothing stores, drug stores and restaurants do we need? Will every business that goes before [the commission] be asked to prove that?" Mr. Conley asked in a conversation with the Gazette Friday.

Economic impact questions, in the commission's 28-year history, have been much less frequent than environmental impact and traffic congestion concerns raised by residential developments. But the preamble to the commission's legislative charter specifically charges the land use regulatory agency with a responsibility to "promote the enhancement of sound local economies."

The commission's concern for existing Island gas stations while reviewing two new proposals could be leading the agency into new territory when evaluating commercial development.

"When you get the results, the question becomes, what do you do with the information?" Ms. Cini said Thursday night.