Government

Heated Exchanges at Scotch Plains Zoning Board as Wawa Urban Planner Testifies

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Paul Grygiel (forefront) of urban planning firm Phillips Preiss Grygiel, with Wawa counsel Joseph Paparo (left). Zoning Board member Rich Fortunato looks on.  Credits: John Mooney
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Scotch Plains Zoning Board attorney Vince Loughlin told Wawa's counsel, Joseph Paparo, he was out of order. Paparo said the same of Loughlin. Credits: John Mooney
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Attorney Mark Rogoff argues that the Wawa project is not in line with Scotch Plains master plan. Credits: John Mooney
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Neighborhood resident Kim Kraft displayed posters of Wawa locations in Elizabeth and a local Citgo station to prove a point. Credits: John Mooney
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Neighborhood resident Arthur Siegel said Paul Grygiel presented "the whole enchilada" but felt that he had not answered critical questions about the Wawa project. Credits: John Mooney
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SCOTH PLAINS, NJ -- At the end of a long evening of testimony by Paul Grygiel of Phillips Preiss Grygiel, an urban planning firm based in Hoboken, on behalf of Wawa, the fuses became short.

The evening's main witness, as well as the attorneys for Wawa and neighborhood residents, and Scotch Plains Zoning Board attorney Vince Loughlin seemed to lose patience during the stress of the four hours of expert testimony.

The meeting, which ended after 11:00 p.m. was punctuated by Loughlin and Wawa counsel Joseph Paparo, an attorney for Hehl & Hehl, claiming that each one was "out of order" in a scene reminiscent of Al Pacino in 1979 film, "And Justice for All."

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Paparo objected to the admissions of photographs on the record by neighborhood residents who have made their case during the public commentary portion of the proceedings. The process demands that people who take microphone ask questions about the testimony provided by the witness on the stand. Audience members are discouraged from giving their opinions. Yet, several members of the public made lengthy statements that elicited groans of frustration in the council chambers. Zoning Board chair Anthony Gialanella reminded speakers to comply with the rules, just as he has asked at previous sessions.

Loughlin told Paparo that if he wanted to object to the admission of the photos he should have done so earlier in the evening and at previous meetings, rather than after the fact. The two attorneys then got into a heated exchange.

The evening started on a much more civil tone, however. Paul Grygiel, an expert witness who had not attended Wawa hearings, said that he had reviewed the recordings of five previous meetings and visited the proposed Wawa site. He gave detailed descriptions of the four lots, totaling 2.2 acres, near the convergence of Rte. 22, Mountain Ave. and Glenside Ave. Lot 4 is zoned R2 residential, while 1.4 acres of the property is zoned B3 highway commercial.

The site currently is comprised of the San Guiliano Garden Center, a vacant residence, a building that houses a printing business, and a storage area that has minimal buffering.

"It (the property) is already being used for non-residential usage. It's under-utilized land," said Grygiel, explaining that the applicant (Wawa) wants to remove and demolish what's currently there.

The planning expert spelled out the changes made to the Wawa plan since it was first submitted:

  • the size of the project has been reduced 10 percent,
  • the rear entrance was eliminated (no access point facing residential properties on Mountain Ave.),
  • the number of gas pumps reduced 25 percent,
  • signage redesigned,
  • fuel tanks relocated.

Grygiel, who lives in Westfield and is familiar with the area, said: "The D1 use variance that would permit gasoline sales and a Wawa convenience store is particularly suitable for the property for the following reasons:

  • As it exists today, the property is a mixed use property, although undeveloped

The existing buildings are abandoned and conditions not ideal. The property is sizable for the zone -- six times bigger than a usual commercial use service station -- and is likely redeveloped, according to Grygiel.

  • While residentially zoned, the property is "different"

Many properties are zoned residential but have commercial uses, according to Grygiel, who said the property's location along Rte. 22 makes it unique, compared to other residential properties in Scotch Plains. "This proposal not intruding on virgin residential land. If you go a little further west on Mountain Ave., there is commercial use."

  • The residential portion of site is unlikely to be developed for residential use.

"This property makes no sense as a residential site because of the traffic. Simply, you don't want to put house there," Grygiel said. "If it was such a great site for residential, someone would have come along and put residences. It's vacant and essentially used for outdoor storage. Lot 4, while it could be subdivided, is exposed to traffic and land uses. Not every site has these same conditions."

Grygiel concluded that "consolidation makes sense" and that the benefits of consolidating the property include having the ability to move things around and create greater buffers "that are better than the current chain link fence and limited landscaping." He added that the site currently allows for commercial uses on two-thirds of the land.

The planner admitted that "people are concerned things will change and impact their way of life," but asked them to take into account that the property is not a vacant lot. Since 1990, it has been a split zone and has not been redeveloped.

Attorney Mark Rogoff, who represents the neighborhood opposition, then had the opportunity to speak to Wawa's expert. Rogoff pointed out that page 5 of the Scotch Plains master plan said that "commercial should not be established in residential neighborhoods" and that "uses should be compatible of the residential character of this township."

"In particular, there should be strict adherence to control of height and signage. Did you consider all those goals?"

Grygiel responded during a terse question and answer exchange that there are unique characteristics of this site because it has been zoned 25 years and not been developed there. "In my opinion, it's not a viable space for a residential home."

Rogoff reminded the board that it is obligated to adhere to existing zoning ordinances.

"I work for municipalities; they have a lot on their plates. The zoning map was drawn years ago. Part-time government body members aren't focused on every single piece of property. There may be other properties that warrant more attention," Grygiel explained. "I'm opining based on  my experience."

John Lama, a resident of Rolling Knolls Road who hired Rogoff to oppose the application, said he appreciated the time and effort Grygiel put into his presentation, but believes the planner failed to demonstrate positive impact on the community.

"He doesn't think there is impairment to the master plan; we do. Commercial should not be put in a residential zone," Lama said in a phone interview with TAPintoSPF. "The burden of proof is on them, and Wawa hasn't met it."

Lama added that the neighborhood group will bring its own planner to the next -- and possibly final Wawa -- hearing on Monday, Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m.

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