March 21, 2003

Only "a few final details" remain to be worked out before the county approves controversial plans for Wawa Inc. to build a combination convenience store and gasoline station in Claymont. That is likely to happen in two to three weeks.

The company will "probably get the [fuel] pumps in front, with some design improvements," Charles Baker, general manager of the New Castle County Department of Land Use, told a packed house at a Claymont Community Coalition meeting.

He said a meeting of his staff with company representatives has been scheduled for next week. "We may have it wrapped up" before the department hosts a follow-up public meeting, at a date yet to be announced  in early April, he said.

Because the site on which the company wants to build, at Philadelphia Pike and Harvey Road, is appropriately zoned, the department has the final administrative say on whether the project can go ahead.

Where the 16 fuel pumps in eight bays will be situated on the site has been at the nub of a long-running dispute between Wawa and the coalition and the Claymont Renaissance steering committee. The company wants them in front of the store and the civic groups have said they should go in back. Until now, the county department has seemed to agree with the civics, exercising discretionary

authority granted by the Unified Development Code to require that the building be sited with just a 15-foot setback from the forward property line.

Although Baker said the final decision will be based "on the best professional [planning] job we can do" and not influenced by the number of letters he and County Executive Tom Gordon receive on the matter, he began his presentation at the Mar. 20 meeting by asking how many in the audience favored approving the Wawa proposal.

There was no doubt at that point that he would receive an overwhelmingly supportive response. A standing-room crowd said to number about 150, although it appeared somewhat larger, filled the meeting room in the Brandywine Senior Center to capacity. Another 75 to 100 people were turned away.

Lawyer Wendie Stabler (above photo) makes a point on behalf of Wawa Inc. The drawing is of a prototype outlet similar to the one the company proposes for Claymont. In the photo below, land-use manager Charles Baker responds to a question at the crowded Claymont Coalition meeting.

 The crowd was mustered by an ad hoc effort by Claymont resident Chuck Riley, partly as an outgrowth of an exchange of views through Delaforum's Community Voices feature. Coalition president George Lossť declined an invitation to move the meeting to the larger Claymont Fire Company hall.

Baker said the turnout was an impressive display of community interest. It was even more so because it involved support for, rather than opposition to, a development project.

The attenders sat, or stood, quietly through an hour-long agenda of other matters before the Wawa issue came up and, except for applause and a few random individual outbursts, were restrained in their attitude toward the proceedings. Whatever tension existed was broken with prolonged laughter when Barker, intentionally or otherwise, said, "We didn't say move the pumps to the rear; we said move the building to the front."

Lossť said the coalition does not oppose Wawa' building the outlet in Claymont but has advocated placing the fuel pumps in front of the building on the grounds that would be incompatible with the appearance the Renaissance movement envisions for Philadelphia Pike.  The initial phase of the rejuvenation effort is proposed for a stretch of the highway about a mile north of Harvey Road.

After a presentation by Wawa officials and their lawyer, the audience expressed a clear preference for a complex based on a standard corporate design similar to the one on Lancaster Pike in Hockessin. They disapproved of the third and most recent plan submitted to the county, which has the bays covered by a canopy. In its filing, the company claimed the canopy served as an extension to the building, bringing its front to the 15-foot line.

Although he did not say so specifically, Baker clearly indicated that the professional planners don't like that design either. "They did something (adding the canopy) to get to the 15-foot setback. I'm not sure that is a good thing now," he said.

Brian Pomykacz, Wawa's regional real estate manager, said the company has 25 stores in New Castle County, with a total of 823 employees. In 1991, the latest year for which a complete figure is available, the payroll totaled $8 million and the company paid just under that amount in county and school taxes, he said. The Claymont outlet will employ between 50 and 70 workers.

Project engineer Greg Harvey said that the location of the fuel pumps is a critical element in the company's marketing scheme. He said the company has 120 such combination outlets, which the company calls 'super stores', in five Middle Atlantic states. It has found that that prototype design is the most efficient in serving customers who want to just buy gasoline or something from the store or both. Locating them at the rear of the building, he said, would be both inconvenient and unsafe since that would require patrons to work through the bays or detour around them.

Wendie Stabler, Wawa's local lawyer, said the company is community minded and supportive of the Renaissance movement. Since first submitting a proposal for the complex in Claymont in 2001, it has made numerous changes to comply with the county's requests, she said. "We have been in good faith, trying to do what's asked of us, within reason."

She objected vehemently to the county's imposing the build-to-setback requirement which, she pointed out, is optional, not required, on the part of the Department of Land Use. That part of the development code was added under the guise of being part of a "package of housekeeping changes" while the Wawa application was pending, she said. During the review process "nobody else was being subjected to this in New Castle County," she claimed.

A member of the audience noted that the amendment to the code was sponsored by County Councilman Robert Weiner, who represents Claymont on Council and is recognized as the prime mover of the Renaissance. Baker said, however, that his department drafted the amendments and had Weiner introduce them in his capacity then as chairman of Council's land use committee. "I'm the one who's responsible. The department prepared the changes to the code," he said. Weiner did not attend the coalition meeting.

Baker said that neither the coalition nor the Renaissance committee wields undue influence.  "We do the best professional job we can. It's not the coalition making the decisions," he said.

On the other hand, he added, the department is supportive of the Renaissance. "They've been working for two years trying to come up with plans and ideas for improving Claymont. A lot of this is about style and character," he said.

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