Until now Tom Verricchia chose to remain on the sidelines of his proposed Super Wawa development in Plumstead Township because as he says, “ I don’t like to air my business in public.”
On April 15, 2019 township supervisors appealed a court ruling on the project in favor of site-specific relief allowing the zoning changes so the Super Wawa could be built. Then Verricchia contacted local newspapers and released a publication “to inform the public of our frustration and fairly express the situation.”
In 2017 Plumstead’s zoning hearing board denied the requested variances to allow a 4,700-square-foot convenience store with 10 gas pumps in the Commercial I district at Ferry and Swamp roads.
Verricchia responded with the appeal to Bucks County Court of Common Pleas which was decided by Chester County Judge Robert Shenkin, who had been appointed to avoid a possible conflict of interest because Bucks County Judge Jeffery Trauger owned a property included in the plan.
In March 2019, Shenkin decided that the township zoning “unconstitutionally excludes a legitimate land use” and that the developer is entitled to site-specific relief to have gas pumps at this location.
Next the township and Verricchia attempted to negotiate a settlement during an executive session meeting with supervisors Nick Lyon and Dan Hilferty representing the board. They discussed $600,000 in upgrades, including a redesigned traffic intersection, additional walking trail extensions to neighboring developments, enhanced architectural elevations, and signage according to the developer.
Verricchia said, “Negotiations broke down with Plumstead supervisors because of a condition we have no control over. They asked us to request Judge Shenkin vacate the March decision.”
According to Jonathan Reiss, Plumstead Township solicitor, it is within developers’ control to request a judge to vacate an order.
Contingencies for judges’ decisions of yes or no can be agreed upon during negotiations. A judge is more likely to vacate an order, if both parties request it, according to Reiss.
When asked why he chose not to request the judge to vacate the order, Verricchia said, “We agreed to everything else on the table and why should we spend $100,000 to re-engineer plans to include upgrades while we wait for a judge to rule? That’s not a leap we are prepared to take. We might as well spend money on litigation in Commonwealth Court.”
Instead, Verricchia proposes “Plumstead change its zoning to include the modern day convenience store with gas pumps, with a size convenience store that is economically viable.” He said that his development company tries to fit into township zoning but Plumstead goes too far in limiting use by size restrictions.
“We are not carrying the flag of the modern convenience store industry,” said Verricchia.
“Most of the development industry wants us to go to Commonwealth Court to open this up to the state of Pennsylvania,” he continued.
Supervisor Dan Hilferty said recently at a township meeting, “A township does not have to change their zoning to fit the business plan of a Super Wawa.” Pennsylvania zoning law requires uses to be provided for but gives townships the legal authority to zone for size and intensity of uses.
“Plumstead has provided zoning for convenience stores with gas pumps in Commercial II zones, in other locations in the township. Just because a Super Wawa of 4,700 square feet and 10 gas pumps does not fit into the site’s size and intensity constraints does not mean that the zoning is unconstitutional or exclusionary,” explained Reiss, in a phone interview.
Verricchia also mentioned questionable sewer and water conditions at the site at the interview and in a recent publication by his company, “Commitment to Plumstead” expressing its view that it supports the economy of the township and businesses neighboring the proposed site.
The publication states that the project will “save local businesses” by allowing them to connect to public water and sewer in the event of system failure. However, according to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection procedure, this will happen without the Super Wawa development, or any development of the site.
In the event of a sewage site failure, Pa DEP issues an order for correction. Those businesses could be allowed connection to Bucks County Water and Sewer public systems without further development.
On April 20, Supervisor Nick Lykon posted comments on his Facebook page concerning the project, including an offer by the developer to reimburse the township for over $85,000 in legal and professional fees incurred during the appeal. This offer was not presented at the executive session negotiations, nor to other supervisors, nor presented in Verricchia’s publication.
Residents have expressed concerns about gas pumps’ creating a public health risk because of possible leakage of tanks and carcinogenic chemical benzene runoff from impervious surfaces into neighboring groundwater. The property lies in the Neshaminy Watershed and falls between the North Branch and Neshaminy tributaries, which supply the Forest Park Water facility of the North Penn Water Authority.
Verricchia said, “We have demonstrated the environmental safety of the plan to the zoning hearing board. We are in compliance with current design practices for gas tanks.”
When asked to comment on the benzene in gasoline, he said, “Wawa gas does not contain benzene.” However, Bill O’Donnel of the Wawa fuel team, Chester Heights, said it is not added to the product but can have up to 0.62 percent benzene, since it is a naturally occurring element in fossil fuels.