A rendering showing the Wawa proposed for the Newtown Bypass.

NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP >> Provco Pineville Acquisitions has submitted a zoning application to the township seeking a special exception to build a Super Wawa on the Newtown Bypass at Silver Lake Road.

Provco officially submitted its application to the township on March 17 seeking the special exception along with zoning relief for signage and the number of fueling dispensers.

The Provco Group, a commercial real estate agency based in Villanova and the equitable owner of the property, will be seeking to build a 5,585 square foot Wawa with gas pumps on the five acre parcel 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 and 60 parking spaces, including three ADA, two electric vehicle charging stations and two air pump stations.

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.

“Wawa believes this is an exceptionally good site for the proposed use,” said land development attorney John VanLuvanee, and would fill a gap in Wawa’s market coverage. According to information provided by Wawa, the nearest Wawa’s are between four and eight miles away.

The submission comes six months after the board of supervisors voted 3 to 2 to pass a municipal curative amendment that added a combination gas station and convenience store as a special exception in its office/research zoning district.

Passage of the E30 Ordinance effectively headed off litigation and opened the door to Provco to request a special exception from the township.

Shortly after unveiling sketch plans for a Super Wawa, Provco challenged the validity of the Newtown Township Zoning Joint Zoning ordinance for not allowing a combination fueling station and convenience store anywhere in the jointure.

The challenge prompted Newtown Township, working in conjunction with Wrightstown and Upper Makefield - the three municipalities that make up the Newtown Area Zoning Jointure - to develop a so-called curative amendment to its Joint Municipal Zoning Ordinance (JMZO) to remedy the oversight.

The sale of gasoline as an accessory use to a retail operation had not been permitted in the office-research zone, or for that matter anywhere in the Joint Municipal Zoning Ordinance (JMZO) making the ordinance challengeable, Proco’s land use attorney told planners in 2019. The company followed through, filing a challenge with the Newtown Township Zoning Hearing Board over the exclusion.

The new E30 ordinance limits the use by special exception to a minimum four acre lot in the office research zone in Newtown Township and places limitations on the square footage of any proposed store, limits the number of fueling dispensers up to a maximum of eight based on acreage of the site without a variance, imposes restrictions on signage and lighting and set parameters for parking, buffering, etc.

“If we don’t enact this ordinance, not only does Provco move forward with its validity challenge, anyone else can come in, file a similar challenge for any other parcel located in the jointure,” warned township solicitor Dave Sander last fall. “The real impact of this is to cut off additional challenges and hopefully allow Provco to come in with their own application under the new ordinance or pursue their validity challenge.”

Supervisor Kyle Davis, in voting against the ordinance, argued that the ordinance gives developers exactly what they’re looking for. “The OR is mostly on the bypass. I think we’re giving too many pumps and too much acreage. And I think we should have considered moving it to light industrial or office light industrial. Make it unattractive and put it somewhere else and not on the bypass. Putting it along the bypass just makes it more attractive to everyone.”

The problem with changing the zoning district, responded township lawyer Jerry Schenkman, is it doesn’t address the validity challenge filed by Provco.

“If we ignore that zone they’ll pursue their challenge and likely be able to build there anyway,” he said. “This is a way to keep it as restrictive as possible and limiting it to that lot and maybe one or two others. If you remove that, they’re going to get to build anyway.”

Supervisor John Mack agreed with Davis, adding his concern regarding the process.

“As far as when someone makes an application for this, and it will be Wawa, let’s not kid ourselves, they’re going to go first not to the board of supervisors to approve or not to approve, they’re going to go to the zoning hearing board for a special exception. And when they go before the zoning hearing board they are going to ask for 18 pumps, a drive-thru and LED lighting along the bypass. They are going to ask for all of this stuff and they’re going to get it and that’s my concern.”

Sander stressed that if the curative amendment is not enacted, “the ordinance will remain subject to challenge by not only Provco, but anyone else who wants to come into the jointure and challenge the validity of the zoning ordinance. Adopting the ordinance will head off challenges, except Provco’s. Not allowing the ordinance would allow additional challenges to be filed in addition to Provco’s.”

Chairman Phil Calabro said the long standing argument “that we’re going to be Street Road and Route One is not going to happen,” noting that there aren’t that many parcels of buildable land available along the bypass that can meet the ordinance requirements. “Plus one of the intersecting streets has to be a major thoroughfare and it can’t abut a residential area, which makes it that much harder.”

The Newtown Township Planning Commission, which recommended approval of the E30 amendment, had spent the better part of 2019 and 2020 crafting the amendment.

“Our goal was to come up with our own plan. We wanted to design one that we thought was right for the township irrespective of what Provco was proposing,” said planner Joel Raab.

Planner Kierstyn Zolfo agreed. “When they submitted their dream version of this ordinance, they wanted a pony and they wanted rainbows and they wanted spot zoning,” she said. “I can tell you what we ended up recommending to the supervisors is what we thought was best for the township and is not bending over backward for Provco.”

Among the biggest changes from what Provco originally proposed is that it won’t be a use by right, said planner Mary Donaldson. “It’s a use by special exception. You can’t just do it. You have to go through the zoning hearing board and through us and the board of supervisors. It adds that extra layer of review.”

Since 2019, the proposed ordinance has gone through numerous reviews and revisions by planners and elected supervisors in all three municipalities. Upper Makefield and Wrightstown gave their approval to the amendment in the fall of 2020. All three municipalities held separate public hearings before taking a final vote on the amendment.

It remained unclear until now whether Provco would file for a special exception under the new, more restrictive ordinance or pursue its validity challenge.

If Provco is successful in obtaining the zoning relief it needs, its next step would be to submit land development plans to the township for review and approval by its various boards and commissions.

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