A petition nearly 1,000 signatures strong could stop the Wawa proposed for Horsham and York roads in Hatboro before plans formally get underway.
That was the sentiment shared with a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 200 Hatboro residents opposed to the potential demolition of centuries old buildings to make way for a 5,102-square-foot convenience store with six gas pumps.
Leslie Jones, in addressing Wawa representatives on hand Tuesday night at Pennypack Elementary School, said the campaign of the newly formed Hatboro Residents’ Association has so far collected 978 signatures against the plan.
“And the drive is still in full force,” Jones said. “Will this knowledge affect your decision to purchase the property? Yes or no.”
After briefly consulting fellow Wawa representatives seated at the table beside him, John Zaharchuk of Summit Realty Advisors, the developer heading up the project, acknowledged that opposition could impact the eventual outcome.
“We don’t even have the property under agreement right now,” he said. “That does weigh into the decision.”
After the roughly two-hour meeting, Zaharchuk told Patch the decision “would be made by the entire development team” and that he did not know at what point the Pennsylvania headquartered convenience store giant would be prepared to walk away.
Wawa officials have not yet filed plans with Hatboro to build the proposed store and when asked by Patch Tuesday, representatives said it was “too soon to tell” when plans might be submitted. Generally speaking, the development process takes about six months, Wawa representatives said. However, since the site Wawa is considering is zoned for residential use, Wawa would need to apply for and be granted a variance from the borough’s zoning hearing board.
Residents broached that issue, as well as quality of life concerns dealing with increased traffic and the impact to neighbors living literally feet away from the property. Flooding and the loss of nearly 300-year-old buildings were the topics that drew ire from many in attendance and seemed to unify the oft-applauding crowd.
“I can’t believe you’re going to destroy it. I just can’t believe it,” said Bruce Smith of the planned demolition of the building currently housing Spa Escape and two adjoining properties. “We have to cherish the value of these buildings."
Others pointed out that one of the structures will mark its 300th birthday in 2015 when Hatboro celebrates its tricentennial.
“How does that show respect for our community?” Heather Hamilton asked of plans to demolish it. “It doesn’t.”
Preliminary plans involve the preservation of the shuttered and flood-ravished Old Mill Inn, Zaharchuk said. When pressed for specifics on how that would be done, he said, “To indicate what we might do with the Old Mill is a little presumptuous.”
The first floor of the building is unusable, he said, but the hope is that the second and third floors could be salvaged.
“A use must accompany the structure to ensure long-term preservation of the building,” he said.
Linda Clauser, the owner of the building previously housed by Quig’s Pizzeria and Grille, said Wawa is not the enemy.
“Somebody’s selling the property and selling that property to them,” Clauser said, addressing residents. “I don’t think the Old Mill could look any worse than it does now.”
Based on comment after comment from residents opposed to the Wawa, Clauser appeared to be in the minority – at least of those present Tuesday night. In a poll on a previous Patch article, 73 percent of 745 respondents said they were in favor of a second Wawa in Hatboro.
Besides the hope of preserving the Old Mill, which Zaharchuk said would be “up to the borough” in terms of who would own it, the Wawa proposal includes the demolition of the building currently housing Spa Escape, as well as a former nursing home and a residential property on the rear of lower Horsham Road. Of the residence, Zaharchuk said he did not know if the property owner was in favor of having their home torn down.
“We haven’t had any direct communication,” Zaharchuk said after the meeting. When asked if the owners knew of Wawa’s intent, Zaharchuk responded, “I suspect they do.”
Residents shared anecdotes about traffic jams, inability to pull out of their driveways during rush hour and plans to avoid the intersection should the Wawa come to fruition.
Traffic engineer Jennifer Walsh said that if Wawa moves forward, 10 surrounding intersections would be studied as part of the project’s overall traffic study. Counts would be taken during morning peak hours of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and afternoon peak hours of 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
It’s required of new developments to “mitigate the impact to what they were operating at before,” Walsh said, adding that Wawa customers would likely amount to drivers already on the road. The store, she said, is not expected to generate a significant number of new trips.
Wawa representative Joel DelliCarpini said a reduction in the site’s existing impervious coverage, as well as additional stormwater management controls would help to “mitigate the impacts” of flooding at that heavily flooded intersection, where during last year’s storms dumpsters floated away, vehicles were left stranded and the Old Mill Inn endured the brunt of the storm.
“Water takes over,” said Tracy Thatford, a Woodwinds resident who is considering a FEMA/PEMA buyout of her flood-damaged home.
DelliCarpini said the hope is to “alleviate,” not “correct the flooding issue.”
If Wawa’s plans move forward, Wawa Regional Real Estate Manager Susan Bratton said the store would pay an estimated $30,000 in annual taxes and would employ 40 to 45 associates. Roughly half of the employees would be full-time and would receive benefits, she said.
When a resident asked how much financial benefit the corporation currently reaps – or stands to reap - Bratton said, “We do not share that data with anybody.”
In terms of the existing North York Road location, Bratton told Patch that Wawa reps would “evaluate” whether or not to keep the 23-year-old store open.
Later, when residents pondered similar questions, Bratton seemed to hint that the older store, sans gas pumps, could be closed.
“As we mature in a marketplace we are building new facilities and frankly closing older facilities,” Bratton said. “That’s the beauty of real estate.”
But, if the same were to be true of the new site, with its proposed gas pumps, what could the land be used for years down the road, Catalina Mladim asked.
“Have you done any studies in terms of life beyond Wawa? What happens if this is not successful?” Mladim asked, referring to at least one shuttered gas station on Easton Road in Horsham. “How many gas stations have ever been converted to something else?”