A rendering showing the Wawa proposed for the Newtown Bypass.

NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP >> The Newtown Township Zoning Hearing Board will continue its hearing on the Provco Pinegood LLC/Wawa appeal on Monday, September 20 beginning at 7 p.m.

At that hearing, the zoning board will take public comment regarding the requested zoning relief.

The Provco Group, a commercial real estate agency based in Villanova, is seeking zoning relief as part of its plans to build a 5,585 square foot Wawa with gas pumps on a 4.9 acre site across from Crossing Community Church at Lower Silver Lake Road and the Newtown Bypass.

Provco’s plan for the site depicts the convenience store facing the Bypass with eight fueling dispensers (16 fueling positions), front and rear store access, pedestrian walkways, bike racks, one electric vehicle charging station, two air pump stations and 60 parking spaces, including three designated for ADA.

Access to the store would be off of Lower Silver Lake Road via a right in entrance and a full intersection at the entrance to the store across from Crossing Community Church. 

Provco is seeking variance relief for the number of fueling dispensers allowed and the location, type and number of signs permitted under the township’s E30 ordinance.

Specifically, Provco is seeking relief for eight fueling dispensers on 4.9 acres where six are permitted by right and seven would require at least five acres. Provco is arguing the seventh would require only de minimis relief and should be granted and that eight dispenser would create better traffic flow through the site.

Provco also is requesting a number of variances for signage, including for two electronic message centers that are prohibited in the jointure. Provco is requesting the electronic center signs to display fuel prices with the changeable copy limited to fuel prices.

Provo is also requesting variances for the number of signs allowed. The number of signs is limited to two. Provco is asking for four signs.

In addition, Provco is seeking a variance for the location of signs. The ordinance does not permit signage within 1,000 feet of the bypass. Provco is seeking relief for one wall sign located within 1,000 feet of the bypass.

Regardless of the outcome of the hearing, the Wawa project is pretty much a done deal. Once the board of supervisors approved an E30 use amendment to its joint zoning ordinance last year allowing a combination fueling station and convenience store to be built in the township’s office research zone, the question of whether a Wawa would be coming to the bypass became a matter of when, not if.

During its third night of testimony on August 18, the zoning board heard from the township’s expert witness, municipal planning consultant David Babbit, who recommended that the Zoning Hearing Board deny all the requested variances.

“It is my professional opinion that not one of the requested variances from Zoning Ordinance provisions is

warranted,” Babbit told the zoning board. “The subject site has no unique physical circumstances or conditions that render it impossible to be developed in strict conformity with the Zoning Ordinance, and no variance is necessary to enable the reasonable use of the property. 

“All of the variance requests stem from the provisions of the Ordinance itself, not the physical characteristics of the subject site,” said Babbit. 

“In particular, the size of the site is large enough to permit the proposed use, and large enough to allow for a maximum of six fuel dispensers, which is the typical number of dispensers of all the Wawa establishments with fuel in Bucks County. 

The site, said Babbit, is also large enough, it enjoys enough frontage and visibility from both the Bypass and Lower Silver Lake Road, and the proposed use is so well known in the area, that the variances for additional signage are not warranted.

At its April 28 meeting, the board of supervisors voted unanimously to oppose Provco’s request for variance relief for the proposed convenience store and gas station and to direct its solicitor to oppose the requests.

While opposing the variances, the supervisors did not challenging a special exception request by Provco to build a Wawa in the township’s office research zone under the E30 use.

The township, working with the jointure, crafted the E30 use to address a lawsuit filed by Provco challenging the jointure for not allowing a combination convenience store and  gas station use.  The E30 ordinance limits such a use to the office research zone in Newtown Township.

At the July hearing, traffic and signage experts testified in support of the proposed variances for signage and the number of fueling dispensers that will be allowed.

During the July hearing, which was continued from June, Provco Pinegood 

LLC wrapped up two nights of testimony with traffic and signage experts speaking to the need for the zoning relief.

Testifying for Provco were Matthew Hammond, a licensed civil engineer specializing in traffic planning, and Michael Tantala, a civil engineer with Tantala Associates who testified to signage.

Hammond testified that if a proposed monument sign at the intersection of Silver Lake Road and the bypass is not there or is significantly smaller it would create a dangerous condition on the bypass with motorists making split second decisions to make the turn onto Silver Lake Road.

He testified that visible signage is important, especially for impulse customers who need enough advance warning to move to the proper turning lane.

“These signs are designed with the appropriate size, height and location necessary to provide a safe and efficient flow of traffic along these roads,” Hammond told the zoning board.

One of the more interesting exchanges of the evening was over the definition of an electronic messaging sign and whether what Wawa is proposing is or isn’t an EMC, which is not permitted in the joint zoning district.

Tantala testified that what Wawa is proposing is a price module sign that is not an electronic message center as defined by the Joint Municipal Zoning Ordinance.

“It’s a semi-translucent piece of Mylar film that is internally illuminated from within so it’s not a digital panel or a digital display,” said Tantala. “It is proposed that this will change no more than five times a week. The price change is very much like when an employee would go out and change the plastic display, except in this case it’s a more convenient vinyl number spool.” 

Quoting from the ordinance, Tantala testified that the sign that is being proposed is not animated, does not display moving video images, graphics or scrolling messages, electronic, static images, graphics or pictures with or without textual information.

“The proposed sign is not an EMC because it is not animated. There is no appearance to the driver of motion, of blinking or of movement,” he said. “The sign as proposed is going to be a static display with no animation, no movement, no electronic images.

Under cross examination, township attorney Dave Sander said the opposite is true, that what Wawa is proposing falls under the category of an EMC and is not permitted in the jointure.

“Isn’t the sign that is depicted a scrolling message,” he asked. “I’m looking at the description and it says scrolling numbers module. Is it a scrolling message or not?”

“I believe it’s a static display with a convenient spool that changes the number once a day, five times a week,” Tantala said. “It’s a static display that’s not moving. There’s no appearance of movement. Therefore it’s not an EMC.”

Sander then asked, “Is this proposed sign capable of change or alteration by electronic means?”

“I would characterize it as mechanical change,” Tantala told Sander. “You push a button. That relates to a motor that mechanically moves it.  There are electronics involved, but it does not rise to the level of an EMC.”

The zoning board opened the appeal on June 3, hearing from Provco attorney John VanLuvanee who produced testimony from witnesses regarding the history of the site, signage and fueling positions.

Among the expects testifying on behalf of Provco at the June 3 meeting  was Joseph Botta Jr., president of development for Pinegood Properties LLC. He provided background on the project, including development of the E30 ordinance and Provco’s substantive challenge of the zoning ordinance.

Also testifying was Jason Korczak, a civil engineer with Bohler Engineering who has been involved with the project since 2018. He testified that if the lot size was calculated based on the deed a seventh fueling dispenser would be permitted by right. 

Korczak also testified that from an engineering standpoint there is no reason why the seventh or eighth fuel dispenser couldn’t be provided at the site.  He also testified that the plan would essentially be the same whether there were six, seven or eight dispensers.

The addition of a seventh or eight dispenser would not alter the character of the neighborhood or substantially impair the use or development of adjacent properties, Korczak testified.

If the zoning board grants relief, the township has the right to appeal. If the township doesn’t appeal, Wawa will be free to move forward with land development plans to build the Wawa.

If the relief isn’t granted, Provco can appeal the decision to the Bucks County Court of Appeals, a process that would rack up additional legal fees and take months to complete, or it can move forward with “by right” plans, which would limit the fuel dispensers to six and the number and types of signs as per the E30 ordinance.

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