For more than 3½ hours, as the snow continued to pack thick on the ground Wednesday night in the first major storm in a thousand days, more than 130 people logged onto Zoom to follow the fate of a gas station in Mount Laurel, N.J.
The convenience store giant Wawa has submitted a proposal to build a store with gas pumps next-door to another gas station — a small, family-owned one, called Stiles Sunoco. And that proposal has inspired scores of neighbors to oppose the plan before the Mount Laurel Zoning Board of Adjustment.
“[T]his is going to kill a family owned business that has serviced our area for over 50 years,” Karen Panagotopulos, of Mount Laurel, wrote in a change.org petition signed by nearly 1,300 people, calling Wawa’s proposal a “greedy grab.”
“Stiles Sunoco,” she said, “gives back so much to the community.”
Stiles may be an outlier among gasoline stations: It has legions of fans. Set in Mount Laurel for over 50 years, Darlin-Jo Wilson — née Stiles — and her husband, Shawn, have run Stiles Sunoco at Route 38 and Hartford Road, where they fuel and fix cars. In the decades they have been in business, they have donated money and contributed to local car wash fund-raisers, earning overwhelmingly loyalty in the town of a little over 41,000 people.
Another Wawa — the fourth one in Mount Laurel and a mile from Rowan College at Burlington County — could upend the Wilsons’ livelihood, hundreds of people believe.
The new Wawa, if approved, would have a 4,700-square-foot convenience store, 50 parking spaces, 6 fuel stations that would allow up to 12 cars to fill up their tanks at any given time, and 40 employees, adding to the 180 other Wawa employees in town. The store would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Stiles Sunoco shows online that it operates from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on most days, except Sundays, when it is closed. The Wilsons did not return a request for comment.
Tyler Prime, a land-use lawyer representing the applicant for the Wawa store — Laurel 38 Developers LLC — sought to buffer Wawa from accusations that it would steamroll Stiles Sunoco.
Prime said that the Wilsons had closed their other gas station in Mount Laurel earlier this year, and that the shuttering had not been related to competition from Wawa. (The store had instead been hurt by the pandemic, the owners have acknowledged.)
“The economic impact of competition from a neighboring business is not an issue that can be considered,” Prime said Wednesday night, speaking before the seven-member Mount Laurel Zoning Board of Adjustment.
At times, the pace of the meeting appeared to frustrate members of the community. A member of the public spoke out of turn during testimony from Mike Redel, a Wawa engineer, and accused him of “filibustering” by talking about the history of Wawa in Mount Laurel.
Some members of the public had been exasperated before Wednesday.
On Dec. 2, during a board meeting, more than 200 people had tried to sign onto the meeting to listen to expert testimony for the Wawa project. Mount Laurel Township, caught off guard by the intense interest in the meeting, had a contract with Zoom that capped the number of meeting attendees at 100.
Around then, people started to sign a petition in opposition to the potential new Wawa, where they wrote impassioned comments in support of Stiles Sunoco and disparaged Wawa.
On Wednesday, Alan Kramer, a member of the Zoning Board, said that he had never seen gas stations directly next to each other, and that based on documents he had seen, the entrances to the Wawa and Stiles Sunoco would be just meters apart.
The lot where Wawa wants to build is owned by Norman Shabel, of Moorestown, and Delran, N.J.-based Panarello Property Management. The property is zoned to allow a convenience store. The developer for Wawa has requested a number of variances that include raising the height of the roof over the open-air fueling station to be 33 feet, or about 12 feet higher than what the township prefers.
Township residents who had already lambasted Wawa for wanting to directly compete with a family-owned gas station also criticized the corporation for choosing a location long snarled with traffic.
Nick Verderese, a traffic engineer and founder of Dynamic Traffic, based in Lake Como, N.J., acknowledged that the highway was a “well-traveled road” and that the Wawa would draw from the existing store of traffic, with hours that peak at 7:15 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. on weekdays and noon on Saturdays.