Some view it as an archaic roadblock that stifles investment and convenience, while others see it as a uniquely made-in-Coquitlam custom that harkens back to the golden age of the automobile.
The issue of full-serve gas stations in Coquitlam is as old as it is obscure, and dates back to some point in the early to mid 1980s.
In fact, no city staff person contacted by The NOW could identify the exact date when the bylaw was established, nor could Coun. Lou Sekora, who helped enact the bylaw when he was the city’s mayor in the early 1980s.
Since that time, zoning requirements stipulate that gas be pumped by service station attendants only. The bylaw also restricts other uses at service stations to the point where not much outside of a chocolate bar or a pack of gum can be sold.
No one interviewed by The NOW could identify how many other municipalities in B.C., or Canada, have similar bylaws in place.
“I’ve heard from people in the industry and I’ve heard from residents, both who are frustrated,” said Mayor Richard Stewart. “But I’ve heard from other residents who think it’s a great thing.”
Coquitlam’s Amber Strocel falls into the earlier group. A co-administrator of TheV3H blog, Strocel has spent about 10 years avoiding gas stations within the city limits.
“I [pump my own gas] all the time in every other municipality I’m in, so it’s not like I’m not qualified,” she said. “I will typically avoid buying gas in Coquitlam.”
Strocel wrote a blog post in February lamenting the issue and received mixed feedback from her readers.
“There are lots of people who agreed with me in that it’s a pain to have to wait for somebody else to pump your gas, and you often have to get out of your car anyways if you’re paying by credit card,” she said. “But there were other people who really, really like having other people pump their gas for them.”
In an interview, Sekora suggested 95 per cent of Coquitlam residents favour the current full-serve model. Job creation, safety and better customer service are just a few of the reasons he trumpeted the idea three decades ago, and continues to support the current system.
“Self serve, what does it do? It eliminates a lot of jobs,” Sekora said. “I would never go to self-serve gas stations. You can get your windshield washed, oil checked and your tires checked [at a full serve station]. It’s much better service.”
Raul Allueva, Coquitlam’s manager of development services, noted the city began revisiting the issue two years ago.
“We certainly know that gas station sites are prominent and we certainly don’t want any of our zones to have impediments that would impede investment and renewal,” he said.
Allueva and staffers have heard from industry and lobby groups, though the appetite for change from those stakeholders isn’t to the point that it’s opening up a new debate.
“I don’t have a run of them knocking down the door saying, ‘We would invest in Coquitlam gas stations if you change the regulations.’ I can tell you if we did, we would move much more quickly,” he said.
“There may be some issues with full serve, I don’t know yet. Let’s look at it.”
One of the groups that’s reached out to the city is the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute (CPPI). Based in Alberta, the lobby group represents the vast majority of the major companies — Chevron Canada Ltd., Shell Canada Products and Imperial Oil — that market, refine or distribute petroleum products in Canada.
“People don’t go to the corner service station to get their car fixed anymore these days, they go there and they get their milk, bread, coffee or get a carwash,” said John Skowronski, CPPI’s director of government and stakeholder relations for its western division.
“Those are the kind of things consumers are looking for in terms of convenience, and if the marketplace is able to support that kind of investment, then the business will make those investments.”
Skowronski stopped short of suggesting his group is asking for the city to change. Instead, he said market forces should dictate which businesses are allowed to set up shop in the city.
He also noted that about half of Canada’s service stations are independently operated, and that a prospective entrepreneur could shy away from investing in a community with rigid guidelines like those found in Coquitlam.
“Whenever a regulator starts to put boundaries in and starts to enter into how the business should provide their services and products, it may not be to the advantage of the consumer,” he said.