NORTH BRUNSWICK – Nine months after the North Brunswick Zoning Board of Adjustment denied an application to build a Wawa convenience store with a gas station at Cozzens Lane and Route 27, a judge has reversed the board’s decision.
The zoning board denied the applicant’s request for a use variance and its plan to demolish the existing convenience store in order to construct a new store with associated fueling stations, as per a resolution adopted on Sept. 19 and memorialized on Dec. 12, as well as final major site plan approval and other bulk variances.
A convenience store is a permitted use in the C-1 zone and has been for 20 years; the fueling station is not a permitted use in the neighborhood commercial zone.
According to the decision of state Superior Court Judge Thomas Daniel McCloskey, sitting in New Brunswick, dated June 15, the zoning board must grant all approvals because “a board cannot simply ignore an applicant’s experts and witnesses … nor can a local zoning board simply restate the statutory language of positive and negative criteria and justify a denial of a use variance.”
The decision continues, “While the views and opinions of neighboring property owners are important, a local zoning board cannot deny an application that is otherwise entitled to approval by accepting unfounded objections by neighbors, as was the case in this application.”
A main factor, according to the judge’s decision, is that the existing Wawa has been operational for two decades.
It is also now state law that a convenience store with associated fueling stations is considered a “single use,” according to the document, and thus “to deny Wawa the ability to add a necessary product that is an inherent part of its existing, permitted convenience store use … is clearly arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.”
Timothy M. Prime of Prime Law, representing North Brunswick Partners, LLC, on behalf of Wawa, filed a complaint on Jan. 17, followed by a trial date of May 4.
Prior to the board’s vote in September, Prime said 17 changes had been made to the site plan since its initial denial on Nov. 8, 2016, including reducing the number of gas pumps from 12 to 10; reducing the size of the new store from 5,000 square feet to 4,736 square feet; eliminating oversized parking stalls that were going to be added to the site; reducing the number of parking spaces overall; keeping the storage tanks underground; restricting delivery times from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and keeping deliveries on the Route 27 driveway; and increasing the setbacks.
Prime said extensive traffic studies were done and redone, and he said the site would service existing customers while trying to capture the traffic that already exists in the area.
“I do know that the client and Wawa were very happy with the judge’s decision and they look forward to remodeling the store and upgrading the store with the fueling stations as permitted by the court,” Prime said on July 2.
However, board members and residents vehemently disagreed last year.
“I think, to me, this application is very simple: Wawa has not demonstrated the need for the use of gas pumps, and the on-site traffic and congestion issues are major concerns,” zoning board member Tony Chedid said as he cast his vote to deny the application in September.
“Drivers routinely, I repeat, routinely, violate traffic safety rules. … Traffic studies mean very little to me, I’m going to tell you that right now. Have you ever seen a traffic engineer go against the application they’re representing? We have a multitude of traffic engineers: they all live on Delta Court. You want a traffic expert? Ask a neighbor,” he said.
Chedid was referring to the dozens of residents who attended and spoke at each meeting over the prior several months, citing traffic, health, space and safety concerns.
The zoning board will be required to approve the Wawa application at a meeting, to be announced, but there will be no public comment allowed, nor an appeal period, per the rules of the process.
Prime said the applicant hopes to “proceed as quickly as possible” going forward.
Michael Hritz, director of the North Brunswick Department of Community Development, had no comment. Lawrence B. Sachs, the Zoning Board attorney, could be reached by press time.
Contact Jennifer Amato at firstname.lastname@example.org.