MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — A decision in the push to expand the Walmart in Rio Grande will have to wait until at least April, as Tuesday’s hearing before the township Planning Board ended with each side having a witness left to call.
The retail chain’s plan to add a grocery section to its sprawling store faces opposition from the owners of the nearby ShopRite and others, but was met with a strong show of support at the meeting.
Among those who spoke in support of the project was Middle Township resident Michael Hajek, who said he believes the township needs an alternative to ShopRite.
“This is greatly needed in the township, simply because the present ShopRite is a catastrophe,” said Hajek, who is handicapped. “The site is cluttered, it’s unsafe to (the) handicapped. It does not have sufficient handicapped (parking) on it.”
Hajek said he believes increased competition in the grocery market would be good for township residents. A Super Fresh closed in Middle Township in 2011, but there are still two Acmes and a Save-A-Lot.
The Planning Board must grant Wal-Mart Stores five variances before the project can proceed. It needs variances related to size, type and number of signs, number of parking spaces and the size of its front-yard setback.
The parking variance was the biggest point of contention at the meeting. Township zoning requirements state that a retail facility must provide 4.5 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of area. This would require Wal-Mart to provide 1,004 spaces; the company’s proposal includes 883.
Witness Mark Roth, a traffic engineer, testified that a parking lot study during Labor Day weekend in 2011 indicated the proposed 883 spaces would be more than enough.
“What our analysis showed us was there is an excess of parking on-site, and there will continue to be following expansion,” he said.
The study took into account a traffic increase with the addition of a grocery section, Roth said.
Attorney Stephen Nehmad, who represents Wal-Mart, also called project architect Perry Petrillo and consultant Creigh Rahenkamp to speak on the project. Petrillo discussed revised plans for the store’s vestibule in response to a question raised at a February Planning Board meeting, and Rahenkamp testified the project is in compliance with the township’s master plan and the requested variances are justified.
Attorney Ronald Gasiorowski, who represents ShopRite, cross-examined Petrillo, Rahenkamp, Roth and civil engineer Dave Wisotsky, who testified at a previous meeting. His cross-examination focused on traffic flow on the proposed site.
Sean Ford, who owns the local cafe chain Avalon Coffee, spoke in opposition to the plan. One of his locations shares the lot with Walmart. Ford said he was required to adhere to all zoning regulations when he built in 2000, and Wal-Mart should do the same.
“They need to meet the requirements as I did,” he said. “I’m just a little guy. I had to meet the requirements. I didn’t have a lawyer to do the dog-and-pony show.”
Steve Bradway, who said he lives behind the Walmart, sought assurance the store would resolve an ongoing dispute over early morning noise caused by maintenance. He alluded to previous legal battles in 2009 and 2011.
Gerald Chudoff, of Burlington County, criticized the parking study detailed by Roth. He said it should not apply because it was taken the weekend after Cape May County faced a mandatory evacuation because of Tropical Storm Irene. Roth said the store was open at the time of the study and stood by it as representative of peak parking.
In questioning by Nehmad, Chudoff admitted he works for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and has contested every proposed Walmart expansion in the state. He denied he attended the night’s meeting on his employer’s behalf.
Sixteen members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local #255 appeared at the meeting, most of them wearing the bright yellow shirts of their group. Four members spoke, including Paul Crowding, who said he supports the project because it would bring work to the county.
The dispute will go before the Planning Board again at its April 8 meeting, which starts at 7:30 p.m. The meeting will be held in the Middle Township Municipal Building on Mechanic Street.
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