Zoning officials in Mount Laurel approved a hotly debated Wawa on Wednesday night, handing a victory to the corporate behemoth over a neighborhood gas station that had sought to block a new competitor next door.
After nearly five hours of public comment and arguments among lawyers and engineers during a virtual meeting, a majority of the seven-member zoning board said they had little choice but to permit the Wawa because the area is zoned for commercial use.
Neighbors who rallied behind Stiles Sunoco had raised objections ranging from the competitive squeeze facing the family-owned gas station to the possibility of increased congestion. But the zoning board members said that such issues were beyond their mandate and that their jurisdiction was limited to the zoning code.
The “super Wawa,” a 24-hour, 4,736-square-foot outlet to be built at the corner of Route 38 and Hartford Road, had sought what board members called a “laundry list” of deviations from the code, giving some members pause. Still, the board granted Wawa numerous exceptions, including a green light to sell gas.
It did so after a lawyer for the developer told the panel that New Jersey court precedent required that the board grant reasonable exceptions to its rules.
Board members worried about the sheer size of the new store.
“I would understand if it was just a convenience store,” board member Renee Chambers-Liciaga said Wednesday night. But she added that the 1.67-acre lot appeared too small and that Wawa was asking for too many zoning exceptions.
Alan Kramer, another board member, had similar reservations. “I almost feel like it’s the Taj Mahal going on a postage stamp,” he said.
The developer for the Wawa is listed on paperwork as Lakewood, N.J.-based Laurel 38 Developers LLC. Wawa would lease from Paramount Realty Services, which is associated with Laurel 38, but the property is owned by Norman Shabel, of Moorestown, and Delran-based Panarello Property Management.
The Wawa would go up directly next to the Stiles family-owned auto-repair shop, which has sold gas for more than 50 years there, winning many allies in the community.
Traffic from the Wawa would further snarl congestion and lead to more car accidents, locals told the board Wednesday.
The zoning board said roads are overseen by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, not the township.
Similarly, the board said it could also not consider market saturation and competition in its vote, as a resident, Joyce Scheying, pointed to an abundance of other Wawa stores within minutes of the one to be built on Route 38.
The matters the board said it was limited to discussing were the zoning exceptions Wawa had requested. Along with the right to sell gas, those included a store 12 feet taller than the town’s 20-foot limit, a structure with a back wall 24 feet from an adjacent street instead of the requisite 50, and permission to let customers exchange propane tanks outside. The board approved all three.
“There are reasons why these rules exist,” said John King, a longtime Mount Laurel resident. He said Wawa’s insistence on fitting a large store onto a small lot could compromise safety.
Other residents who spoke Wednesday pointed out that Wawa’s proposal materials had labeled one of the next-door neighbors as a bank. But a Taco Bell is soon to replace the bank, which residents argued would make traffic more congested.
However, Nick Verderese, a traffic engineer hired by the project developer, said the Taco Bell would have a negligible impact on congestion.
Darlin-Jo Wilson, who took over Stiles Sunoco from her father and runs it with her husband, Shawn, argued that the Wawa would be a detriment to nearby homes.
Wilson said it was possible the new Wawa might throw off more business for her gas station, simply by drawing more people to the area — and by generating more banged-up cars in need of repair.
That said, she added, “We hope the board will see and understand it is the negative aspects of this increased business that we expect that concerns us based on the plan and testimony from Wawa. Not the competition, but rather a lack of planning for this area for what it will become … one huge, poorly designed rest area.”