John Mack - Newtown Supervisor
The Newtown Township Planning Commission Stymies Path Forward for Wawa - For Now

The Newtown Township Planning Commission Stymies Path Forward for Wawa - For Now

At its October 16, 2018, public meeting, Newtown Planning Commission members ripped apart the proposed Ordinance Definition amendment (a so-called “Text Amendment Definition”) to the Newtown Area Joint Municipal Zoning Ordinance (JMZO Definition) that is designed to allow a “modern, motor vehicle fueling center consisting of a convenience store with accessory motor vehicle fuel sales” on the Bypass. The ordinance was drafted by developers and their legal counsel and modified by Newtown Township officials specifically for a Wawa Super store, a Sketch Plan Definition for which was first presented to the Board of Supervisors (BOS Definition) in May, 2018 (read “Developer and Attorney Present Their Case for a WaWa Superstore on the Newtown Bypass”).

Wawa Sketch Plan

The following is a summary of the questions and comments made by Planning Commission members regarding this proposed ordinance, which would amend the OR District Definition zoning regulations to allow for this Conditional Use Definition, which otherwise does not allow such use. The Planning Commission review is the first step before the draft ordinance is presented to the Jointure Definition for approval by all three members (Newtown, Wrightstown, and Upper Makefield). Newtown is the only municipality in the Jointure that includes an OR District. Consequently, as pointed out by the Wawa representatives, if Newtown wants to change the ordinance that only applies to it, then the other Jointure members are not likely to oppose it (see videos here: “Updated Wawa Plan Presented to Newtown Planning Commission”).

For background, recall that Wawa representatives presented a sketch plan for a Super Wawa – convenience store plus gas station – on the southeast corner of Lower Silverlake Road and the Newtown Bypass. “This site is never going to be a corporate headquarters or office building,” claimed land use and zoning law attorney John VanLuvanne in remarks to the BOS (read “Developer and Attorney Present Their Case for a WaWa Superstore on the Newtown Bypass”). To remedy this supposed defect, Mr. VanLuvanne volunteered to draft an amendment to the JMZO. The BOS agreed to accept the draft and the result was the edited document before the Planning Commission.

Julie Bonds, the attorney representing the applicants, summarized the major sections of the document:

  • Section 1 amends the OR District to allow a motor vehicle fueling center use E-25 by Conditional Use. Section 2 sets forth the dimensional criteria applicable to the motor vehicle fueling center.
  • Section 2 specifies the dimensional requirements such as minimum lot area, minimum number of feet from any roadway, etc.
  • Section 3 amends the use regulation with a definition of the E-25 motor Vehicle Fueling Center. It then lists the specific criteria that this use must comply with. Provisions deal with location, access, parking, lighting, signage, sidewalk, canopies, buffers, and loading zones.
Is There a Need?

Commission Chair, Alan Fidler began with the “whereas’s” that summarize the reasons for proposing this amendment and he focused on #4, which he quoted as saying, in part, “Newtown Township has acknowledged,” the need for such a use. He said this “gives an official assessment that there is a need present. I don’t know that there is a general consensus from the Planning Commission that this need exists. To use a blanket statement that everyone has recognized this ‘need’ can bias the public and I don’t want the Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission to be labeled with agreeing that this is an acknowledged use.”

Commission member Peggy Driscoll suggested that this ordinance should be discussed at a televised Supervisors meeting. The Wawa attorney responded that such a use has been discussed at Joint Zoning Council (JZC Definition) public meetings as can be attested to by the JZC tracking sheet (see figure below).

The agendas of these meetings are not well advertised beforehand and, consequently, no one from the public attended. In addition, the minutes from those meetings, which can be found here, are very sparse and do not get into the details about what was said at those meetings. The October 16, 2018, PC meeting is the first time this proposed new use has truly been put before the public for comment. It is expected that the minutes of this meeting will offer more details. In the meantime, the following are my “unofficial” minutes of the meeting based on an audio recording.

Why Is This Being Put Forward?

At one point early on, Ms. Driscoll asked “Where did this come from?” In answer to that question as well as why this ordinance is being proposed, Mr. Fidler noted that the Township has “made itself available to corporations and businesses that are seeking to come to Newtown Township to set up meetings with staff and administrative officials to discuss what sites, what uses, what types of businesses is the Township looking for. The Township has always been very receptive to bringing businesses into the community that bring a degree of employment opportunities, and viability to the community. It’s not done clandestinely because at some point in time the applicant has to decide whether they move forward and submit a sketch plan or they go away. Apparently Wawa felt that the desirability of coming to Newtown weighed them to believe that working with the Town to get a zoning relief for a new use was to the benefit of the township and probably to a greater benefit to Wawa. This is not anything out of the norm,” said Mr. Fidler. “That being said, this remains a very controversial and sensitive issue,” he added.

Mr. Fidler also noted that the Township followed the same procedure when Lockheed Martin way back in the nineties approached the town to come in with their development. Of course, Lockheed Martin generated significantly more income for Newtown than Wawa would ever be able to do. For example, when Lockheed left with all it’s high-skilled, high-paid workers, Newtown lost more that $700,000 in annual Earned Income Tax (EIT Definition) revenue. Wawa, with a maximum number of 20 low hourly-wage workers, would generate at most about $2-4,000 in EIT per year.

What About Setbacks?

Mr. Fidler’s opinion was that the gas pump canopy should be 100 feet back from the property line, whereas the draft ordinance permits only 50 feet. “My concern is, if you have to have this, I want the insulation from the Bypass that does not throw this in the face of the residents and the travelers on the Bypass. Wawa’s perspective is completely different,” Mr. Fidler admitted.  “They want visibility.” A representative of the developer noted that there was a large right-of-way along the Bypass so that “essentially” the canopy would be more than 100 feet from the highway.

Speaking personally as a long-time resident, Mr. Fidler said he likes the “pristine vistas of the Bypass and if you have to come, respect that! Move your stuff back!” Of course, others don’t feel the vistas are all that “pristine.” 

“Shall, Can, or May”

Aside from the limited financial value for the Township’s revenue stream, Mr. Fidler questioned the wording in Section 3 regarding uses and noted that some uses “may” be included whereas other “shall” be included. He focused particularly on “charging stations” that was included in the “may” category of use. “The wave of the future, in my opinion,” said Mr. Fidler, “is energy efficient transportation. Royal Farms puts charging stations in their facilities and I don’t know why the township would want to give you the option [to put a charging station in or not to do so].” The point being, if Wawa can opt out of providing services like electric charging stations, ATM machines, and exterior pumps for the inflation of tires, then the value to residents is less than what it could be if these were required services.

A point was made that the draft ordinance, as written, would allow any other convenience store with accessory motor vehicle fuel sales to build on the site should Wawa refuse the conditions required by Newtown. That could open the door for Sheetz or Royal Farms, for example. Residents may have a lot less to like about these stores than a Wawa. Additionally, the ordinance sets the minimum lot size as 4 acres instead of 5 that was originally proposed. In light of that, Mr. Fidler asked for an inventory of any other plots of land greater than 4 acres within the OR District that this new ordinance could accommodate.

Some other bones of contention included:

  • A Sidewalk to Nowhere serves no purpose! A sidewalk is not warranted unless it is connected to something. It does not connect to trails and would require a crosswalk across the Bypass, something that is considered impossible to do safely;

  • Conducting Business on a 24-hour Basis. Fidler said this puts employees at risk of robberies in the early morning hours. “I really question whether this community would sustain a 24/7 economical operation for a Wawa,” said Mr. Fidler. It was also suggested that a 24/7 operation may be OK for the location being considered by Wawa but not for other complying parcels that may be closer to residential areas.

  • No vehicle on site for more than 24 hours. The Commission asked who would be responsible for enforcing that? Would it be Newtown Police? Truckers could be pull in at 11 PM and leave before 9 AM the next day, allowing them to catch a few hours of sleep without violating this restriction.

  • Lighting issues. The text calls for lighting the “generally” conforms to accepted industry standards. Mr. Fidler suggested that “either you conform or you don’t.” The Town Planner, Michele Fountain, said specific standards must be included as to light height, brightness, etc.

  • Grading issues. Mr. Fidler noted that the Wawa sketch plan presented to the PC at a previous meeting put the grade “right at the Bypass.” The existing steep ten foot berm at that location is “going to disappear,” said Fidler. “To me, some of the beauty of the existing site is the elevation that exists.” Removing that increases the visibility of the fueling station and building contended Fidler. The engineer representing the Wawa developer disagreed and contended that a higher elevation would increase the visibility!

  • Sign Regulations. Mr. Fidler read the description of an allowed free standing sign of 65 square feet, maximum height of 15 feet: “Changeable text or LED, provided not more than one change every 24 hours and limited to the advertisement of fuel prices.” According to Fidler, the Township “has been very hesitant to permit LED lighting.” Fuel stations, such as Rick Steele’s on Newtown-Yardley Road, are required to have signs that must be changed manually. The Township, said Fidler, “does not want to see the proliferation of LED lighting.” Rick Steele’s, a business that has sustained our community for many years, was denied a variance for such lighting in the past. The applicant argued LED lighting was “esthetically more pleasing.”

Mr. Fidler did not buy the argument made by the attorney representing the Wawa developer that as businesses evolve over time so must ordinances evolve to meet the needs of business. “In this particular case,” noted Fidler, “this is an evolution that benefits one specific property. It doesn’t benefit any one else. That’s where I question the fairness of this particular approach.”

Play By the Rules

In closing, Mr. Fidler seemed to express the consensus of the majority of Commission members when he said “Play by the rules, but if you want to change the rules, change them for everybody.” The Commission decided that the current draft was not ready for the Commission to make a former recommendation to the BOS. It will go back to the Township officials to revise the draft and then be brought before the Commission at a future date.

Comments from Attendees

The following is an edited audio recording of a selection of comments made by residents at the. While these are not all the comments made, it should be noted that EVERY comment was against the ordinance change.

Posted on 19 Oct 2018, 01:18 - Category: Ordinances

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