Costco on the fight to sell discount gas in Colchester

Published: Nov. 21, 2017 at 5:59 PM EST
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At Costco in Colchester, the holidays can be a little hectic.

"It's a madhouse!" one shopper said.

From the store to the parking lot, it's busy.

"Absolutely packed, took a while to get a parking spot," said Chris Vlasic, a shopper from Hudson, Quebec.

But in one corner, it's very quiet. The store's brand-new gas station is waiting for the OK to open.

"We haven't been here in a while and we were hoping that the gas station was open," said Amy Keighley of Richmond.

Reporter Kristin Kelly: How frustrating has this process been?

Chris Stafford/Costco General Manager: Well, it's been a decadelong process.

The permitting process, the court battles with nearby gas dealers like Maplefields who raised environmental concerns, and now, the wait for the state to make road improvements near the store. Costco built the gas station but cannot legally operate it until those traffic fixes are done. And Skip Vallee, the owner of Maplefields, is now appealing the state's plans for nearby interstate exit improvements which include the traffic work Costco needs. The 10-year process is now sparking online jokes that Costco will just start pumping bulk maple syrup instead.

"There'll be no maple syrup in the tanks," Stafford promised.

The store's general manager says dozens have asked him about syrup. And while it's funny, it makes light of a project that's cost millions.

"We can't use names but there's obviously some opposition to us coming here," Stafford said.

Stafford was careful about what he shared with us on camera. But Costco's corporate office was more pointed in a statement, telling us: "Our gas station competitors have tied us up in appeals and lawsuits... The challenges to our approvals prevent us from selling gas. We view these legal actions as an attempt to use the planning process to stifle competition."

Skip Vallee's lawyer responded with a statement of his own: "The recent repeated closures of Burlington beaches and monthslong toxic bacterial bloom in Lake Carmi show the increasing harm of unchecked phosphorus on our waterways. The Conservation Law Foundation is working with us to ensure Costco's project complies with Vermont and federal environmental laws. These environmental laws exist for good reason and should apply equally to everyone, even billion-dollar, multinational corporations."

"We're going to do everything to obey the law," Stafford said. "Costco typically goes above and beyond."

He says Costco built the station knowing it won't open for a while to show its members it's going above and beyond.

"You know, part of the value of the membership is having the great price on gas," Stafford said.

He says the company's last analysis shows prices would be 19 to 25 cents cheaper per gallon than nearby stations, and that competitors will end up lowering their prices-- as has happened around the country-- near other Costco gas stations.

The other element tied up in the long permitting process-- the store's expansion. Costco can go ahead and break out the side wall of the building once those traffic improvements are made.

"We're going to gain almost 18,000-square feet once that happens. So it will give us more registers, give us more room," Stafford said.

VTrans says it is on schedule to start construction in 2020 but Costco can do its own road improvements sooner if the company wants to pay for them. Costco tells me it is waiting for VTrans to buy all the small pieces of land needed for the road expansions and then is "ready to do its part." If Costco does step in to do the roadwork, it could get the gas station open at least one year earlier.