BRIDGEWATER, NJ - With questioning of the planner kicking off the meeting at Tuesday’s Zoning Board hearing concerning the Quick Chek application, many board members simply wanted to know why the proposed land off routes 22 and 28 was actually the best location for the business.
The application is for a 24-hour Quick Chek convenience store and gas station at the former Tectonic building off Route 22 and Route 28. The proposed building is 5,700 square feet, with a canopy covering 16 fueling stations.
The applicant is required to apply for a use variance because the food store and service station is not an approved use in the C3 zone, which is where the Quick Chek is being proposed.
Board president Donald Sweeney said the testimony of planner Christine Nazzaro Cofone indicated that the Quick Chek is an inherently beneficial use of the site because there is no other similar use nearby.
“You say you’re applying for a use variance, and we should grant it because there is no other such use nearby,” Sweeney said. “Isn’t that because the zone does not allow that use?”
But, Cofone said, it is because it is a different use of the site that the variance should be approved.
“Bridgewater regulates service stations, but that has nothing do with how Quick Chek operates,” she said.
Cofone maintained that service stations include gas, automobile repair and maintenance and more, the latter of which has nothing to do with how Quick Chek operates.
“This creates an opportunity to create a use that provides for this gas service, but does not impair the zoning because it is not like what is discussed,” she said.
But board members were not convinced. Sweeney said that if they were to use that logic to make a decision, it would be on par with choosing any residential zone and building a department store on any open piece of land because there are no others in the area.
“I think that is a mischaracterization of my testimony,” Cofone said. “This is a commercial district.”
Sweeney asked how he could reconcile the fact that hundreds of residents were protesting the Quick Chek with the testimony that the convenience store is an inherently beneficial use.
“This means that if we enforce the zoning and deny the variance, it would be less beneficial to residents, meaning the surrounding community would be better off if we allow this,” he said. “How do I reconcile that with the fact that hundreds of neighbors don’t want this?”
But Cofone said it would be unfair for the board to consider the number of residents attending the meeting in their decision.
“The board making its decision should not be based on the number of residents who come out,” she said. “That is improper criteria.”
Sweeney said he is not using the number of residents as criteria.
“But if this is supposed to be for general welfare, why don’t people recognize that?” he asked.
For many, they wondered why Cofone would say there is such a gap of service stations in the area of Route 28.
“I am really struggling for understanding why the gap of stations is so bad,” board member Michael Kirsh said, citing that there is really only a gap of three miles with no service station. “Clearly a gap of many many miles is a problem. But a gap of 3 miles is not a horribly large distance.”
Cofone said the gap for a facility like Quick Chek with fresh foods and the gas station is much more than 3 miles.
But, Kirsh said, just a few miles away in Branchburg are two gas stations almost right next to a Quick Chek on Route 22.
“When an applicant is coming into a community and asking for a use variance, there is a reasonable expectation that that is as close to an ideal location as possible,” he said. “This is a dramatic action the applicant is asking for. A reasonable expectation would be for a discussion of other sites and why this is the favorite.”
“I haven’t heard about particular suitability,” he added.
Bridgewater Township Planner Scarlett Doyle asked why the food service building is necessary so near the strip mall being built at the intersection of Route 22 and Milltown Road, which can have restaurants, fast food and more.
Doyle noted that 90 percent of the project is not leased yet, so they don’t know what exactly will be opening.
Board members also questioned how well the surrounding neighbors will be able to see the building as they are driving down Route 28. There is a grade change on the property, and the applicant has said it will not be as visible.
Sweeney said they were told that, at night, the glow from the overhead lights will be visible too.
“I don’t think there is anything in the grade changes that will make this building invisible to people nearby,” he said.
Cofone said it will not be invisible, but the lights will be filtered. She said a fence will be obscuring the building.
But, Cofone said, the zoning does allow for office buildings that are three stories, and the Quick Chek will be much lower than that.
“There is no obligation to make the building invisible,” she said. “It’s an unfair presumption for the applicant to have the burden for that.”
Sweeney reviewed elements of the master plan with Doyle, questioning what the intention was for the C3 zone, which currently has allowance for a convenience store theRoute 22 corridor. Quick Chek has been labeled a food store rather than a convenience store because it is bigger than 5,000 square feet.
In addition, they determined that the township is not intending to rezone this area of the Route 22 corridor for this kind of business.
“If we look at the development along Route 22, there is a huge difference between this site and later on,” Sweeney said. “There are corporate campuses and office buildings here. To the east, there is more intense development with auto dealerships, restaurants, service stations and more.”
“Is this difference random happenstance, or is it part of the zoning plan?” he asked.
Doyle said the C3 zone is intended to portray a campus style appearance and a relief from the density that is seen elsewhere.
Many residents commented that they do not believe adding a Quick Chek convenience store and fueling stations will maintain that campus style.
“The applicant has applied for a use variance and given testimony as to why it is believed that this use is compatible for the zone plan and not substantially inconsistent with zoning,” Doyle said. “It is up to the board to gather their information and see with their knowledge of the township and law whether it is particularly suitable for this use.”
One resident asked Cofone why the C3 zone does not allow gas stations.
“I believe that one of the reasons the township wrote the master plan that way is because it didn’t want service stations and fueling stations to proliferate the whole section,” she said.
Sweeney also re-questioned real estate appraiser Robert Heffernan, who had testified that there is no expectation the convenience store and gas station will lower home values in the area. Sweeney questioned how they could believe the conclusion when the applicant only looked at nine properties.
“It would make sense to look at all the sales of homes, but you looked at a subset and drew conclusions about that, and then assumed that those conclusions also hold for the much larger population of all nearby sales,” he said. “How comfortable should I be looking at a few sales and assuming they apply to every home near a Quick Chek?”
But, Heffernan said, there were not enough properties that had residential facilities located close to a Quick Chek, so they had to rely on any on that they found.
“There was a significant lack of residential houses surrounding the Quick Chek,” he said. “Where we could find them and study them, we utilized them. That only happened to be three of the facilities.”
Tuesday’s hearing concluded with testimony from planner Peter Steck, who was hired by Bridgewater Residents United, a group opposing the building of the Quick Chek.
Steck said he looked at the area in all directions from the Somerville Circle and Route 22, and determined that there are already a number of gas stations in the area, five total about five minutes from the proposed property.
“And if you’re running low on food, there are a number of restaurants along the way,” he said. “There is no special requirement to fill your stomach at the same time that you fill the gas tank.”
When the planning board looked at the master plan, Steck said, Route 22 was divided into several sections, beginning with the western area from the north branch of the Raritan River to the Somerville Circle, which includes office campuses with expansive lawns.
That is the area where the Quick Chek is proposed.
But in a later section of the corridor, there are several gas stations, restaurants and more similar commercial properties.
“When you drive the corridor, you notice the difference,” Steck said. “The service station use is adequately represented, and the master plan does not recommend additional ones in the zones.”
Steck’s testimony, plus that of other professionals with Bridgewater Residents United, will continue at the next zoning board hearing, to be held Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School.