Gas station to town: please regulate our hours

Proprietors seek ban on 24-hour retailers

May 8, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Businesses often bridle at regulation. Collectively, they spend millions of dollars each year fighting for their interests.

The proprietors of Clark's Sunoco in Williston are also lobbying the government. But they seek more regulation, not less.

Allen and Liz Lemieux want an ordinance that bans 24-hour businesses. They asked the Williston Selectboard to require businesses that are always open, including their own, to close between midnight and 5 a.m.

The couple said Clark's Sunoco, which includes a gas station, convenience store, repair shop and car wash, has in recent months struggled to find employees willing to work the graveyard shift. They note the business has been victimized by two late-night robberies over the past two years and say the station attracts few customers after midnight.

"I am vehemently opposed to being open 24 hours, especially considering we are in Williston," said Liz Lemieux. "Maybe in a larger area like Burlington it makes more sense."

The couple can't simply close earlier because the lease with their corporate landlord requires the station to remain open around the clock.

A. R. Sandri Inc. of Greenfield, Mass. owns the station. The company, a regional distributor of Sunoco products, owns about 90 gas stations in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York.

Dick Barnes, A.R. Sandri's chief operating officer, said the company tries to balance customer service and station operators' interests.

"Folks both in the county and outside of the county rely on that facility to provide gasoline," Barnes said.

But he added that the company is always willing to consider proprietors' concerns.

The proposed ordinance limiting hours was discussed by the Selectboard on Monday. Board members expressed skepticism about the idea.

"Frankly, my heart goes out to people being forced to keep places open," said Ted Kenney.

But he and other board members wondered what would happen to other businesses that currently operate around the clock or might want to do so in the future.

The Short Stop Mobil station at Taft Corners is apparently the only other Williston retail business open for customers 24 hours a day. Several others — IBM and FedEx were two mentioned by the board — have late-night employees but are not open to the general public.

Allen Lemieux told the board the request was meant to apply only to retailers.

"We didn't intend to shut down FedEx," he said.

Town staff recommended the board reject the proposal.

"No staff research has been conducted on this request but a number of questions come to mind," Town Manager Rick McGuire wrote in a memo. "First, does the board have the authority to enact such a limitation on businesses? Shouldn't the board let each business make that decision?"

Business lobbying

Allen and Liz Lemieux are spending only their time in lobbying for the ban on 24-hour retail operations in Williston. But nationally, businesses interests spend more on lobbying than any other group.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent just under $370 million — double the next highest-spending group — on lobbying over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Sunoco Inc. itself spent between $400,000 and $1.1 million each year from 1998 to 2007.

Clark's Sunoco has been a family operated business in Williston since 1984. The station was originally run by William and Mary Ann Clark. They turned over the operation to their daughter and son-in-law about four years ago.

Allen and Liz Lemieux said at best they break even during the late-night hours. They receive a subsidy from A.R. Sandri for staying open around the clock.

Barnes said he could not comment about the financial viability of Clark's 24-hour operation without first studying the station's numbers. He did say that gas stations that are always open tend to attract more customers, even during daytime hours.

But money really isn't the issue, the couple said. Instead, they are worried about employees' quality of life and safety. Liz Lemieux said people who work the shift are deprived of time with their family.

"When is enough enough, when do you sell enough stuff?" she said. "What's the human cost?"

Clark's Sunoco has been robbed twice in the past two years. Each incident occurred in the early morning hours.

On Dec. 12, 2007, a man entered the station at 5:01 a.m. and demanded money, said Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain of the Williston Police Department. A struggle ensued and the suspect got away with "roughly a couple hundred" dollars, he said.

On Sept. 22, 2006 at 3:15 a.m. a man brandishing a gun demanded money and got away with less than $500, according to Chamberlain.

Employee safety "has always been a concern for us and for everybody in the gasoline and convenience store business," Barnes said.

Most stations are monitored with video cameras and use the brightest outdoor lights that local authorities will allow.

At the conclusion of Monday's hearing, the Selectboard asked town staff to research the legality of the proposal and whether other towns in Vermont have rules limiting business hours. The board will reconsider the request when it has answers to those questions.

The lease between Clark's Sunoco and A.R. Sandri expires in October, said Liz Lemieux. She promised to push hard to eliminate the 24-hour operation requirement when the new agreement is negotiated.

Allen Lemieux feels fatalistic about the chances of changing the lease or convincing the Selectboard to help sidestep the requirement.

"We pursued it thinking it probably wouldn't work," he said. "But we thought we'd give it a try."