August 26, 2005

Wawa Inc. offered enhanced landscaping around its new Claymont outlet to atone for what company officials and its lawyer described as "an innocent mistake" while building the combination gasoline station and convenience store.

The error in question involves the color scheme of the building's brick veneer. It came out red and white although the county-approved plan called for it to be all red.

While administrative hearing examiner Reed Macmillan did not rule on the Wawa proposal, he accepted a recommendation by George Haggerty, assistant general manager of the county Department of Land Use, that Wawa  be given a temporary certificate of occupancy to allow it to open for business, as scheduled, on Sept. 1.

Macmillan told Delaforum after the hearing on Aug. 25 that, despite a significant amount of community interest in the latest chapter of a long-running saga surrounding construction of the store, he will issue a

report on his findings to only the company and not make it available to the general public. That is normal practice, he said.

Nevertheless, it was apparent that he was inclined to go along with Wawa's agreement to take the matter before the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee. If the committee, which is scheduled to meet next on Sept. 15, accepts a revised landscaping plan for the property and the department's professional staff concurs, the issue evidently will be resolved without the county's insisting on taking its proverbial pound of flesh.

Equivalent to the classic Shakespearian allusion to a literal interpretation of the law

It's not the way it was supposed to be, The new Wawa convenience store in Claymont has a two-color brick veneer, not the all-red one that the county-approved plans called for. Company officials admit the discrepancy, but say it was an unintentional mistake.

would be an order to tear off the now existing two-tone veneer and replace it.

That, said lawyer Wendie Stabler, would impose "an extreme hardship" on Wawa.

She argued that it would hamper business for several weeks and pose serious inconvenience, not to mention a danger from falling bricks, on the store's staff and customers. She did not specify how much that would cost, but indicated it would be a considerable amount.

Instead, she said, the Wawa is more than willing to "soften" the appearance of the wall around the perimeter of the site and further enhance the 'pedestrian plaza' at the corner of Philadelphia Pike and Harvey Road.

"We would be willing to implement a revised landscape plan agreed [upon] by the county and the community," she said.

Strictly speaking, the Design Review Advisory Committee does not have jurisdiction over the Wawa project because it was started long before 'hometown' zoning, which established the committee, was enacted. It was agreed, however, that a committee meeting would be an appropriate forum for trying to resolve the issue because membership of the committee and those who regularly attend and participate in its meeting overlap the organizations involved in furthering economic development and physical redevelopment of Claymont.

"We have a broad sense of community support to leave the bricks as they are," Stabler said. She referred to, but did not present, a petition signed by numerous area residents supporting that position.

David Culver, who spoke for the land use department at the hearing, said "there is nothing to prevent them from submitting a revised plan, [but] there is no guarantee the county will approve that plan."

County Councilman John Cartier, who represents the area, did not take a stand on the specific issue and appeared to agree to its proposed resolution, but said that it is important to preserve "the integrity of the planning process."

"We're going to have a high amount of construction going on in Claymont" and the community should be able to rely on developers being held to approved plans, he said. "The record plan reflects a promise; the record plan should be observed."

Culver referred to a "letter opposing granting any relief" from Wawa's  having to follow the approved landscaping plan which he received from George Lossť, president of the Claymont Community Coalition.

Haggerty, on the other hand, presented a letter from Brett Sadler, president of the Claymont Business Owners Association, which declared that although that organization's executive committee "find[s] it regrettable that a mistake was made, we accept their explanation."

According to Stabler and Greg Harvey, Wawa's construction projects manager, the mistake was the result of timing and miscommunication. He said Lynch & Martinez, an architectural firm, drew up a construction plan which failed to reflect a last-minute change in the landscaping plan that had been "insisted upon" by Wayne Merritt, the county planner assigned to the project and to which the company had agreed.

The change, Harvey testified, involved "just one sentence" on just one of 35 sheets of architectural drawings which the department approved. The company, he said, currently has 56 building projects in various stages of planning and construction.

The change called for the entire facade to be red brick veneer. Instead, the architect relied on a standard Wawa design and called for the lower five feet, seven inches of  veneer to be red brick and the rest to be 'silverstone', an off-white shade.

Architect Oscar Martinez accepted responsibility for the mistake and apologized for it during his testimony.

However, Stabler pointed out that the department accepted the erroneous construction plan and issued a building permit. Moreover, frequent visits to the site during construction by county inspectors and planner Merritt failed to notice the deviation from the approved landscaping plan until after the building was completed, she said.

"Nobody in the company, nobody in the community and nobody in the county caught it (the mistake)," she said.

Noting that the Unified Development Code provides that the developer is responsible for making sure that approved plans are followed, Macmillan assessed a $200 fee against Wawa. He specified that that was not a fine, but a fee charged whenever there is a substantiated accusation that a violation had occurred.

Stabler further noted that construction of a Wawa outlet to replace the former Brosius & Eliason store and lumber yard involved four years of give-and-take with the community and a considerable amount of negotiation and compromise.

"We worked tirelessly with the county and [community] organizations; we want to be part of the community," she said.

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