July 25, 2014 at 11:10 PM
WEST ORANGE, NJ – A special Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing regarding the proposed Quick Chek gas station and convenience store to be located at 555 Northfield Avenue was held July 24 at Town Hall. The meeting was attended by dozens of West Orange residents, including local business owners, township council members and board of education members, most of whom were opposed to the project.
The development would sit adjacent to the Best Western Plus Turtle Back Inn, and would operate a convenience store of just-under 5,000 square feet with six pumps and twelve filling stations. The Quick Chek would operate 24 hours a day.
Quick Chek would lease the land from Cece Holding Corporation, the owners of the property. The owners of the Turtle Back Inn also lease their building from Cece Holding.
During a contentious three-hour session, Grayson Murray of Bohler Engineering testified that after discussions with West Orange Township Consulting Engineer Eric Keller and Acting Municipal Planner Paul Grygiel, that Quick Chek had agreed to make a host of changes to their proposal. The largest of these proposed changes was to rotate the store and gas pumps so that the store would be on the West side of the property and the pumps towards the East, away from Northfield Avenue.
In addition, Murray testified that Quick Chek would reduce the footprint of the convenience store and the number of filling stations from 16 to 12, and add more green space on the north side of the lot, which sits adjacent to Stagg Field. His testimony, however, seemed to do little to convince the residents at the meeting that the development would benefit the town.
Once Murray had completed his initial testimony, residents were allowed to question him directly and nearly a dozen residents did so, focusing primarily on the development’s proximity to St. Cloud elementary school.
Several residents asked about potential emissions from the gas station affecting the students, a concern Mr. Murray addressed by explaining that any evaporating gas from the underground tanks would be circulated back into the tanks and that if any fumes needed to be vented from the tanks, they would pass through a device manufactured by Arid Technologies called a PERMEATOR, which would capture 99.3% of any emissions.
Several residents asked about the device and how it works, but also about emissions from cars cycling through the site and possible effects to the ground water nearby. Mr. Murray explained that the underground tanks at the site exceed government regulations and are monitored around the clock for leaks.
The answers given by Murray may have had an impact on how Zoning Board officials view the project, but they seemed to do little to assuage the prevailing mood in the room. TAP asked several residents during the meeting if Murray’s testimony was changing their minds about the project and were repeatedly told “No.”
Suzanne Robinson, who also questioned Mr. Murray, told TAP that she would not change her mind about opposing the development because “we don’t need this gas station.” Robinson added, “We have two gas stations already,” referring to the BP and Delta stations nearby the proposed site.
Resident Anthony Juliano, who addressed Mr. Murray, saying, “I understand there are inherent risks in having a gas station, but maybe one within arm’s length of a grammar school is not the best place to take that risk.”
Juliano’s assessment drew massive applause from the assembled crowd, applause which drew the ire of Board Chairman Bruce Buechler, who had clashed with the audience early on over the acoustics in the room, with several audience members shouting out, “We can’t hear you,” to the board members. After Juliano’s statement, Mr. Buechler asked those in attendance to quiet down and said that if their were further disturbances he would have the police officers on hand clear the room for the remainder of the meeting.
The questioning continued and revealed that child safety and traffic concerns are just one layer of a complex issue. Many of the local business along Northfield Avenue could be affected by a new Quick Chek, among them the Dunkin’ Donuts owned by Adam Goldman, which is soon to become a drive through on the former site of Julio’s restaurant.
Mr. Goldman told TAP that his primary concern was pedestrian safety and he asked Mr. Murray about that issue but he also focused his questioning on the nature of the Quick Chek convenience store, which he asserted violated local ordinances prohibiting the building of fast food restaurants in too-close a proximity.
After repeated questions from Mr. Goldman about the issue, Jennifer Porter, council for Quick Chek, announced that Quick Chek was withdrawing its application for 15 or more seats on the property and would instead install just fourteen seats, which put them under the threshold for consideration as a fast food establishment.
During an intermission held after the second hour of the meeting, Mr. Goldman stated to TAP that his primary interest was the safety of local children crossing Northfield Avenue to frequent the establishments on the North side of the Avenue and that he believed the Quick Chek location would not deliver the local jobs promised by the company.
When asked whether he opposed the project because it would directly compete with his business he said no, but admitted that a Quick Chek would hurt his sales, along with those of the nearby Subway and McDonald’s restaurants, as well as the nearby gas stations.
Traffic Engineer Charles Olivo of Stonefield Engineering testified next and said that the development “would not have a significant impact on the operations on Northfield Avenue,” something board member Gregory Bullock responded to by saying “I don’t find that believable.”
TAP into West Orange reached out to representatives of Quick Chek prior to the meeting to ask about some of the issues raised at previous meetings. In response to resident concerns, both the Vice President of Sales and Merchandising, John Schaninger, and Real Estate Development Manager Rich Lamont spoke at length about safety concerns, job creation and traffic.
On the topic of public safety, Schaninger said that Quick Chek’s 24-hour stores are actually less prone to be robbed than their stores that close at night.
“Any sort of crime on one of our sites is very rare,” Schaninger said, “When it does happen, it’s usually a break-in at one of our stores that is not open overnight. Crime goes down at our stores that are 24 hours.”
Schaninger added that Quick Chek typically puts 16 security cameras at each store and that three employees are in each store at all times to dissuade would-be thieves. Schaninger believes that a Quick Chek at 555 Northfield would not negatively affect traffic at the site, saying that their stores operate on pass-by traffic composed of drivers already traveling down Northfield. In addition, he said that one of the reasons Quick Chek operates 24 hours a day is so that gas deliveries can be done at night, avoiding daytime traffic.
In response to environmental concerns, Rich Lamont touted Quick Chek’s state of the art equipment, saying that it “exceeds the standards” set forward by industry regulators and that all gas tanks are double walled and monitored both locally and at Quick Chek headquarters.
“We want to make sure that the site is safe for everybody,” Lamont said, “We’re certainly concerned about our customers and also our employees.”
As for the 22 variances requested by Quick Chek, both Schaninger and Lamont said that the number is not unusually high and that many of the variances are clustered around single items, such as the signage in front of the store and the enclosure they hope to build around their dumpsters.
“The fact that we are on a site that abuts another commercial building means we need more variances,” Lamont said, referring to the Best Western Plus Turtle Back Inn, adding that many of their requested changes are improvements over the building codes as they stand today.
Another Zoning Board of Adjustment special hearing on the Quick Chek application will be held on September 4, 2014 beginning at 8:00 pm at Town Hall, 66 Main Street.