Representatives of Wawa and a developer presented their case to the Mount Laurel Township zoning board Wednesday night in a controversial proposal to build a convenience store/gasoline station combination on Route 38 and Hartford Road.
The "super" Wawa would be on the same block and next door to Stiles Sunoco Ultra Service Center, a family-owned gasoline and service station that has operated on the corner for decades and has a loyal customer base. More than 100 people attended the virtual meeting, held on the Zoom software platform.
"It hurt when they (Wawa) opened on the other side of (Route) 295," station owner Shawn Wilson told 70and73.com in a telephone interview in late November. He said having Wawa neighboring his station would "devastate" the business. Wilson, who lives in Mount Laurel, owns the business with his wife, Darlin-Jo Wilson, whose father founded the business.
Members of the public did not have time to testify before the Zoning Board of Adjustment adjourned shortly after 10 p.m. The board set the next special meeting on the proposal for December 30 at 7 p.m. to continue to hear testimony.
Laurel 38 Developers LLC of Lakewood, Ocean County, is the developer and is represented by Tyler T. Prime of the Mount Laurel law firm of Prime & Tuvel LLC. Laurel 38 Developers is a unit of Paramount Realty Services Inc., also of Lakewood, and Wawa would lease the property from the company, according to Prime. The site now is owned by Norman Shabel of Moorestown and Panarello Property Management Co. LLC of Delran, according to the application.
The proposed Wawa would be bounded by Route 38, Hartford Road and Walnut and Sixth avenues. A Taco Bell restaurant — across from the Wawa on Walnut Avenue and facing Route 38 — was approved by the township Planning Board on the former location of a Beneficial Bank.
A right-turn entrance, and no exit, is planned from the eastbound lanes of Route 38. The driveway would be about 40 feet from the Sunoco driveway. Entrance and exit driveways also would be on Sixth Avenue and Hartford Road. The Hartford Road entrance and exit would permit only right turns.
Board member Alan Kramer raised a concern over the safety of locating the proposed Wawa driveway on Route 38 about 40 feet from the Sunoco driveway. He also noted the driveways are in the lane for cars making the turn onto the Walnut Avenue jug handle. He was told the state Department of Transportation — Route 38 is a state highway — requested that the Wawa entrance be located where it is.
The convenience store and gasoline sales would be a 24-hour operation.
Board solicitor Evan Crook, a lawyer with the Cherry Hill law firm of Malamut & Associates, said at the beginning of the meeting that board members must consider only "relevant evidence" when making a decision on a zoning application. The economic impact, either on the applicant or other parties — in this case, Stiles Sunoco — are not relevant facts to be considered by the board, Crook explained.
Board planner Joseph Petrongolo of Remington & Vernick Engineers of Haddonfield followed Crook and said the Wawa is a permitted use under the township's zoning ordinances, so the board cannot focus on whether the use is compatible with the site or area. However, the board can decide if the project merits the granting of several exceptions from the conditions.
The developer is seeking exceptions that include:
- The lot-width requirement is 200 feet, but the lot is only 125 feet wide.
- Walls of buildings must be set back at least 50 feet from the street, but the back wall of the Wawa would be 24 feet from Sixth Avenue.
- The building height may not exceed 20 feet, but the applicant proposes a 33-foot building.
- Outdoor displays selling goods is not permitted, but Wawa wants to install a kiosk for a propane tank exchange outside its store.
- Mount Laurel's zoning law also prohibits the combination of retail store and motor vehicle service stations. Wawa seeks relief to combine fuel sales with retail sales.
Representatives of Wawa and the developer said the marriage of convenience stores and gasoline sales makes sense and is standard practice throughout the nation. NACS, the trade association for the convenience store/gasoline sale industry, reports that 80% of the gasoline sales in the United States are made at convenience stores.
Mike Redel, who works for Wawa as a project engineer, said Wawa opened its first Mount Laurel store — at Church Road and Ramblewood Parkway — in 1972, eight years after the chain was founded. Since then, Wawa has closed many of its traditional standalone stores in favor of the convenience store/gasoline station combinations.
Although Wawa has been adding solar panels at other stores, Wawa does not plan to use them at this site, said the developer's engineer, Matthew Sharo of Dynamic Engineering Consultants of Lake Como, Monmouth County.