Wawa has yet to submit a land development plan for a potential store in Ferguson Township, but the possibility of the gas station and convenience store chain opening a location on West Aaron Drive is raising concerns about traffic, safety and noise and light pollution among some Overlook Heights neighborhood residents.
Seven residents spoke at Tuesday night’s Board of Supervisors meeting, which included an application for a zoning variance of 110 square feet for a gasoline island canopy to encroach into the side yard setback at 169 W. Aaron Dr., near the North Atherton Street intersection. The property is currently home to a collision repair center and was previously an auto dealership.
The item did not involve approval of a land development plan, and supervisors voted to remain neutral on the variance request, which will now go before the zoning hearing board at its meeting at 7 p.m. on Sept. 26. While a land development plan for a 5,330-square-foot Wawa store with 60 parking spaces and a fueling island was attached to the variance request, it has not been submitted to the township.
“I will say in my experience it’s uncommon to have a variance request in prior to a land development plan being submitted, because staff have not conducted an initial review,” Jenna Wargo, township planning director, said. “Things may change. Kind of putting the cart before the horse on this one, in my opinion.”
Residents of the adjacent neighborhood who spoke on Tuesday did not say they were opposed to Wawa locating there, but had significant concerns that it could exacerbate existing problems and create new ones if not addressed.
“I love Wawa and I am excited to invite them and welcome them into our community,” Jared Ernico said. “I think it’s great that they are coming and there’s an opportunity to have that. However, I am worried that the process may go too fast and myself and my neighbors won’t have an opportunity to be heard. So I wanted to make sure you knew we as a community do have some concerns.”
Ernico, who lives close by on West Aaron Drive, said he worried noise and light from the site would decrease property values, but more significantly worsen speeding through the neighborhood and cause traffic issues at the intersection.
“That intersection at Atherton and West Aaron Drive is not good to begin with,” Ernico said. “There’s some weird angles going on there. There’s not a lot of room coming out of that property as there is right now. So how’s that going to be handled? I think that’s something that needs to be watched closely.”
Janet Dillon agreed, saying the intersection is already “awful.”
“To increase traffic there, I really hope a serious traffic study will be conducted, as well as a safety study,” Dillion said. “We’re a neighborhood of walkers and we also have a lot of 0 to 5 year olds in our neighborhood. We’re also a neighborhood without streetlights and sidewalks, adding to the danger of increased traffic.”
Megan Orient said it can be dangerous to walk or bike across Atherton, or on Aaron Drive to get to Suburban Park, where the township is currently undertaking a major renovation. While the potential Wawa site is already zoned commercial, a gas station will have a much different impact than the current and past uses of the property.
“The impact from the number of vehicles will greatly change from a car dealership or car repair shop to a gas station, not only the individuals coming to use the service station but the trucks that are coming in to make deliveries,” Orient said.
She also noted that the plans show a lane behind the proposed building, adjacent to the residential area. She said she hoped there would be provisions to limit noise from the Wawa and hours that trucks could deliver to the site.
“The big concern I have is increased traffic and noise,” added Rachael Dreyer. “As a parent of small children, it’s already stressful trying to go walking or biking in the neighborhood because there are folks who just speed down [North Allen Street] on the way down to Clinton [Avenue]. There are no sidewalks. There are no streetlights.T there are no sort of berms that are barriers. So that is already is an existing issue.
“It’s a very congested area at that intersection, Aaron and Atherton. I don’t see how this is going to make it better. That is a big concern as a resident of the neighborhood.”
Supervisor Jeremie Thompson, who previously chaired the township planning commission, said he appreciated residents speaking up early in the process and encouraged them to continue participating.
“I have seen when Sheetz built on Whitehall, there was plenty of collaboration,” Thompson said. ‘That was an example of an applicant that actually did take time and valued a lot of that public input into that facility. I would hope the same of any applicant looking to establish business here in the township.”
Board Chair Lisa Strickland said there will be multiple opportunities for residents to offer input if and when the land development process moves forward. She also expressed appreciation for those who spoke raising the issues.
“Bringing these comments illustrates conditions that could be better serving the residents that exist there,” Strickland said. “Whatever happens there, saying that lighting, traffic, all these different issues are a concern I think is important.”
Members of the public can comment at the zoning hearing board hearing, but only the board can request additional information during the hearing, Wargo said.
“Justification for why this property was chosen by Wawa is not required during that process unless the zoning hearing board requests that information,” Wargo said. “That’s really why this is an odd case that we are having a zoning hearing board hearing prior to that land development plan being submitted, because this [variance] might not be required. It may be that there are more variances that are needed. That’s why staff are working on the back end to figure out if there’s a way to get that additional information and identify a lot of these issues upfront prior to the zoning hearing board.”
The Aaron Drive location would be Wawa’s second planned store in Centre County. The Philadelphia-area company recently submitted plans for a location on Benner Pike in Benner Township