ROBBINSVILLE – The Planning Board has given its OK to a proposed change to the township’s land use code that would allow convenience stores with gas stations as a conditional use in the Planned Commercial Development zone near the Matrix warehouse district.
Currently, gas stations are not a permitted use in the PCD zone, which is bounded by Gordon Road to the north, Old York Road to the east, the New Jersey Turnpike to the west and Interstate 195 to the south.
Approval of Ordinance 2013-05 by the Township Council would mean developers who have proposed a Wawa convenience store and gas station at 308 Robbinsville-Allentown Road near the NorthStar Vets animal hospital would no longer need this particular zoning variance for their project. Balsam Properties LLC presented a concept plan to the Township Technical Review Committee on Feb. 6, but has not yet submitted a formal application to the zoning board.
The Township Council has set a March 14 public hearing and adoption vote on the ordinance, which it introduced Feb. 14. The Planning Board’s task at its Feb. 20 meeting was to review the proposed ordinance and make a recommendation to the council on whether the change was consistent with the township’s Master Plan.
Township Engineer Tim McGough said that while the township Master Plan documents do not explicitly mention convenience stories or gas stations in the PCD zone, “it is generally accepted that gas stations are appropriate uses in proximity to major highways such as the turnpike and Interstate-I95.”
Planning Board member Daniele Breyta asked McGough why gas stations were being made a conditional use in the PCD zone, rather than a permitted use as they already are in the Highway Commercial zone.
McGough said conditional-use designation was precautionary because parts of the PCD zone border residential areas on Gordon Road and Old York Road.
“Making it a conditional use triggers a condition that says they cannot be within 150 feet of a residential zone boundary,” McGough said. “Now someone can’t plop a 7-Eleven on Gordon Road, that’s why I did that.”
The Planning Board also voted to endorse a separate ordinance that would make another change to the land use code as it pertains to gas stations.
Ordinance 2013-03, which is also scheduled to be voted on by the council on March 14, would remove the so-called “proximity clause” that now prevents a new gas station or auto repair facility from locating within 3,500 feet of any other gas station or auto repair facility on the same side of the highway, or within 600 feet of any firehouse, school, hospital, church or playground.
McGough said an appellate court has found that these distance proximity clauses were unconstitutional.
“Essentially, if someone was to challenge it, they’re going to win,” McGough told the Planning Board.
McGough also said the township planner had determined the proximity clause could be undermining economic development in the township by ensuring that rundown service stations have no competition from newer facilities whose presence would force them to upgrade their aging stations to stay in business.
Church Street resident Marilyn Yasko asked the Planning Board not to support the elimination of the proximity clause, arguing that the distances it requires between gas stations and public buildings were there for safety reasons.
“The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) code actually contains these distances and this is where most of the municipalities got it from and every municipality in the area still has it in their code,” Yasko said. “The ideas came out of safety. You don’t want a church nearby because what happens if a gas station blows up and you have 400 people or a 1,000 people in that proximity?”
Planning Board Attorney Jerry Dasti said the proposal only affects gas stations in the Route 130 Highway Commercial zone, not the section of Route 130 near Church Street in the Village of Windsor, where Yasko lives, which is zoned Village Commercial. Dasti also said any future gas station projects would still be evaluated by the township fire marshal using NFPA criteria, regardless of whether the proximity clause is removed from the municipal land use code.
“It’s not the Planning Board’s role to establish ordinances; it’s the Planning Board’s role to determine if a proposed ordinance advanced by the council is in compliance with the Master Plan,” Dasti told Yasko. “A lot of your comments should be addressed to the council.”