Rocky Hill residents gearing up for Wawa fight

Montgomery Planning Board expected to hear jurisdictional challenge Monday

By: Jake Uitti
   MONTGOMERY — Rocky Hill officials are expected Monday to challenge on jurisdictional grounds the right of the township Planning Board to continue hearing an application by Wawa to build a convenience store and 12-bay gasoline station at the site of the former Princeton GammaTech building on Route 518.
   Instead of concluding expert testimony and opening the public portion of the meeting — which begins 7:30 p.m. in the township Municipal Building — as the board had planned, the meeting will be limited to the objections raised by Rocky Hill and its attorney, Susan Lawless. Thus, there will be no public hearing.
   "The way the process works," township Mayor and Planning Board member Louise Wilson said, "is that expert testimony has to be on the record before the public hearing takes place."
   Ms. Lawless raised the objection that the proposed Wawa site — a Superfund site — would be within 500 feet of the borough’s Water Works building, which she and Rocky Hill Mayor George Morren emphasize is a public building.
   The borough also contends that the proposed Wawa plan should be considered a "conditional use," given the proposed gas station facilities, which are not specified in the zoning of the former Princeton GammaTech site.
   Township law mandates that a conditional use cannot be within 500 feet of a public building. The question, then, of whether the proposed Wawa project would be a conditional use needs to be determined by the Planning Board.
   Mayor Morren argues the proposed gas station makes the Wawa project a conditional use.
   "To argue that gasoline, one of the most highly regulated commodities in the universe, is the same as meatball sandwiches and underarm deodorant boggles the mind," he said.
   Also, whether the Water Works building, owned and operated by the borough of Rocky Hill, is a public building needs to be addressed by the board, borough officials say.
   At Monday’s meeting, the Planning Board is expected to consider if the Wawa site is, in fact, within 500 feet of the Water Works building; if the proposed Wawa project should be considered a conditional use application; and if the Water Works building is a public building.
   If the Wawa project is determined by the Planning Board to be a conditional use application, then it would go to the township Zoning Board of Adjustment, because the Planning Board generally only deals with complete applications, Ms. Lawless said.
   "If the (zoning) board does have jurisdiction, then they will arrange another (hearing)," Planning Board attorney Bill Kearns said. "There is no sense bringing the experts in, given the large costs of having them sit there if the meeting cannot continue because of the borough’s jurisdictional objection."
   If an application does not require a zoning variance, it is hard to deny, Planning Board officials have said.
   Rocky Hill officials have been up in arms about the Wawa application because the 12 gas pumps would be within 350 feet of the borough’s well, which had been contaminated by Princeton GammaTech in the 1970s.
   Since the last meeting, a citizens’ group has been formed by borough residents to oppose the application. The grounds for denial, Washington Street resident Courtney White, the group’s founder, said, have largely to do with human error.
   "We’re talking about accidental spills here," she said. "There is so much room for error."