MONTVILLE, NJ – Citing traffic and proximity to residences, the Montville Township Planning Board turned down Wawa’s application to build a 24-7 gas station/quick mart in Pine Brook.
The unanimous vote, which occurred at the July 11 meeting, was preceded by four hearings at which traffic and site planning testimony were heard, plus the public’s vehement opposition to the application. The proposed build site, located at the corner of Route 46 and Changebridge Road, was declared an area in need of redevelopment by the Montville Township Committee in 2015, and the building that stands on the property is in bad shape.
The application had been heard in 2017 by the planning board and rejected, but Wawa had appealed the rejection at that time. Because of violations of the Open Public Meetings Act regarding emails planning board members had exchanged, the judge ordered the application to be re-heard.
So the planning board again heard the application beginning in March of this year. The site plan and buildings (both the quick mart and gas canopy) were presented, the traffic study was discussed, and the argument was given that the ordinance regarding a “motor vehicle service station” didn’t apply, since no oil would be directly input into vehicles and no repairs to cars would be made. This ordinance requires that a distance from a residential zone be observed which the Wawa application does not meet. Wawa’s Professional Planner Peter Steck testified that only one motor vehicle service station in all of Montville meets the distance requirement. Further, Wawa’s local attorney Steven Schepis argued, the way that the Montville Township zoning ordinance is worded contradicts itself.
Ordinance definitions aside, the public wished for a down vote from the board due to traffic concerns. They asked if the board members had seen what Bloomfield Avenue looks like at that corner during rush hour in the morning and evening. Residents of Waxburg Lane also worried about increased use of their street for those avoiding the traffic light at the intersection of Changebridge and Bloomfield, a problem which already exists for them. Other resident concerns included crime, the amount of fuel in the tanks that would be near their homes, and the burden to police, the fire department and the first aid squad. Resident Andrea Wong brought Google maps printouts that contradicted the amount of traffic backup that the traffic study had shown.
“In my opinion, Wawa will bring nothing good to Montville,” David Justnes testified. Justnes owns the closest home to the proposed site. “It’s going to bring a lot more traffic, a lot more incidents, a lot more first aid calls, and it will cost us [taxpayers] a lot of money. In my opinion, a facility that’s open 24/7 is not going to be good for our town. My father used to say, ‘Nothing good happens after 10 p.m.’”
Members of the public opined that the owner of the property, Raymond Eshaghoff, had allowed the property to decline so that the public would welcome any developer to build there. Eshaghoff was not at the hearings.
In his closing statement, Schepis said he thought the board was not in an enviable position.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “The ordinance that you have, to work with, needs to be changed. Schedule C lists a motor vehicle service station as a permitted use and then you have a bulk standard that in essence makes it not permitted – how do you do that? […] This ordinance can never be upheld as legal. It’s so out of line with state law.”
Schepis went on to say that every possible aesthetic improvement was made to the buildings and site, most sign variances were eliminated, and as far as the traffic problem, he admitted that it’s a concern, but he said if the building was re-tenanted, it would have even more traffic than a Wawa. He said his clients had satisfied every concern raised by the township’s traffic engineer.
Planning Board Member Nicholas Agnoli spoke first when it was time for board discussion.
“I do see positives to this application,” he began. “I see an increase in setbacks. The area is blighted and I see a nice, new building. I see an organization coming into town that I’ve gone to myself.”
But he went on to state that he was dismayed by the more than 60,000 gallons of gasoline that would be near a residential area. He said he was “unswayed” by the Wawa traffic engineer’s testimony, stating, “It is the distance that is a concern. A large distance from any hazard does seem wise. […] It wasn’t only the variances that were my concern. This is a site that will attract trucks and cars and I think the Bloomfield Avenue queuing space is insufficient. It’s an area of horrendous traffic and I think it will suffer. People will go out of their way to [come here] because they like Wawa products. I don’t think it was captured in the transportation study.”
Chair for this application Art Maggio said, “Sixty feet from a residential area is just too close. This is just not the right use for this property.”
The board unanimously voted down the application.
Schepis told TAPinto Montville that Wawa will be filing for an appeal of the application with the Superior Court of New Jersey, Morris County, Law Division, before the Honorable Stuart Minkowitz, Assignment Judge.
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