A plan to route traffic in and out of a Wawa store onto two local streets was rejected by Brick Township’s zoning board in 2017, but now that the store and a nearby Panera Bread restaurant have opened for business, the owner of the site returned to town hall Wednesday night to pitch the idea again – setting up a battle between neighboring residents and a local real estate development firm.
Despite assertions that routing traffic into and out of the shopping plaza onto North Lake Shore Drive and Duquesne Boulevard would benefit residents who live nearby, the residents themselves could only offer occasional sighs of opposition while testimony was being offered Wednesday night. Members of the public will have an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and comment on the application for the driveway and related subdivision after testimony is complete; the hearing was carried to a second date in June after two witnesses testified Wednesday night.
When the developer first came before the board in 2017, neighboring residents vehemently opposed access points that would allow traffic to flow onto local streets, especially in the area of an oft-jammed traffic signal off Route 70. The board only approved the development after the side street driveway was eliminated, leaving Route 70 as the only access and egress point.
The owner of the site, Paramount Realty, was allowed to bring forth the application largely under a technicality in the law that permits a developer to propose a project that has already been rejected by the board so long as the new proposal is not concretely the same as the original. In this case, explained board attorney Ronald Cucchiaro, the legal concept of res judicata (literally: “a matter decided”) does not apply since Paramount is proposing a plan that differs slightly from its failed 2017 application.
“It has to be precisely, 100 percent, exactly the same” to be rejected outright under the legal doctrine, Cucchiaro said. “This particular application is seeking a subdivison, which wasn’t in the application initially. It also includes a new stormwater management plan. I’m not saying it’s positive or negative, but when you apply the case law, this board is required to hear the application.”
Professionals hired by the Lakewood-based Paramount Realty said that they were proposing the creation of an entrance and exit from the shopping center into the area where North Lake Shore Drive and Duquesne Boulevard combine. The site is now wooded, except for an existing stormwater basin and an emergency access lane that is closed to vehicular traffic. The new entrance and exit would generally follow the same path as the access lane, and Paramount’s engineering consultants suggested the “Don’t Block the Box” markings in the busy intersection be removed so vehicles will not hesitate proceed into and out of the Wawa to avoid a queue.
But why is this necessary?
“What we’re finding is that there’s a sign to identify the Wawa and Panera, but by the time people see the sign, they’ve already passed the site,” said Mike Gallagher, an engineer retained by Paramount. “They’re then making the right on Duquesne, assuming there is side-road access, as there usually is. When they find out there is no access, they make a U-turn on to Lake Shore Drive.”
There is also an economic component.
“It’s a convenience-based business; if it’s not convenient for people to get to, they’ll just pick somewhere else to go,” Gallagher testified. “If you miss it, it’s not easy to get back to it, barring any illegal moves.”
On numerous occasions, representatives for the developer implied that adding the driveway would confer a benefit on the surrounding neighborhood since residents themselves would not have to travel out to Route 70 to access the Wawa and Panera Bread site. This caused some level of restlessness among neighbors who were assembled in the room, presumably to object to the application.
“We do feel it will benefit the business and the nearby residents,” said Gallagher.
The plan received some pushback from officials during the meeting.
“How do you know that the neighborhood wants what you’re telling us?” asked board member Eileen Della Volle. “The neighborhood has been there for 60 years without a Wawa.”
While Paramount’s representatives testified that safety and traffic flow would be improved by adding the driveway – thus preventing wayward drivers from making U-turns in the residential neighborhood – township officials questioned whether it would make a difference.
“We’ve had a number of complaints about the drivers making U-turns, and I think that has something to do with the lack of curbing,” said Township Planner Tara Paxton. “Even before the Wawa, this area was having problems with those turns. I think it always happens there because of the configuration of Duquesne and Route 70. Making sure it’s curbed and landscaped, and making sure no one can do that, would go a long way.”
John Jackson, attorney for the developer, said his client decided to make the application after hearing feedback from the staff at the tenant stores.
“That was something, in the early stages of this, that a lot of people felt would be advantageous for this site,” said Jackson. “Many people expect there to be a secondary entrance off Duquesne and Lake Shore. Many people are turning off of Route 70 and turning onto Lake Shore, realizing there is no entrance, and having to turn back. It’s just a natural location for this, and we believe the changes to the traffic patterns will be negligible compared to the benefits it will bring.”
Testimony from two expert witnesses – an engineer and a traffic consultant – were both completed Wednesday night. It is expected that Jackson will call a professional planner and at least one more consultant at the next hearing, which was scheduled for next month.
The hearing will continue June 13 at 7 p.m. at the township municipal complex on Chambers Bridge Road.