Proposed Wawa’s Site Plan Moves Forward; Planning Commission Seeks Design Improvements

Proposed Wawa’s Site Plan Moves Forward; Planning Commission Seeks Design Improvements
Renderings of the proposed Wawa convenience store are pictured. Submitted Image

Plans for a Wawa in Berlin got preliminary approval this week but developers will have to work elements of the town’s architecture into the design if they want the project to come to fruition.

After nearly three hours of discussion and several failed motions, the Berlin Planning Commission voted 4-2 Wednesday to give preliminary approval to the site plan for a Wawa at the intersection of North Main Street (Route 818) and Route 50. Commission members want the developer to return with revised elevation drawings showing elements that relate to the architecture of Berlin.

“I don’t want to lose this project…,” commission member Pete Cosby said. “Take a bow to us is all I’m saying. Make the box pretty somehow.”

In 2021, the commission approved a site plan for Athena Properties, the parcel on the corner of routes 818 and 50, that included a 7-Eleven and a hotel. In December 2023, project representatives came to the commission to say they’d be replacing the 7-Eleven with a Wawa. At the time, the commission tabled consideration of the Wawa site plan because they wanted traffic at the busy intersection reviewed and the design of the building improved.

“Make it something special,” Cosby said in December.

Developers returned to the commission this week with updated renderings. Attorney Dirk Widdowson said that while the developer had reviewed the placement of the store’s dumpster based on the commission’s December comments, its placement had not been changed because  if it was moved, passersby on Route 818 would see its doors opening every time it was emptied.

“Those doors open toward the store, not Main Street,” he said. “That way when you come on Main Street you’ll never see those doors.”

He added that the dumpster would be screened by trees and said the appearance of the store would also be softened by the landscaped “Welcome to Berlin” sign the property owner planned.

“It would draw anyone’s eye to that,” he said. “We’re a convenience store and a fuel dispensing location. We can’t hide that.”

Widdowson said the store Wawa had planned for Berlin was a new prototype that had only been done in Herndon, Va.

“They really feel they are giving Berlin a special building,” he said.

Property owner Spiro Buas showed the commission a few alternate east elevations for the building, some featuring a plainer exterior design and others featuring the use of a variety of different building materials.

While commission members made it clear in December they also wanted a traffic study done, Planning Director Dave Engelhart said the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) deemed it unnecessary because the site had already been approved for a 7-Eleven.

“They’re satisfied with everything that’s been provided to this point,” he said.

Engelhart said he’d received two emails from the public regarding the project. Resident Marie Velong wrote that a stoplight at the intersection was needed and resident Gina Velong said she was worried about traffic increasing in what was already a bottleneck.

Commission member Matt Stoehr said he’d heard similar concerns from other residents.

Buas said he’d asked for a light at the intersection years ago but SHA wouldn’t do it because of the proximity to the on and off ramps for Route 113. He said he would like to see a signal there but that it was out of his control.

“It makes my property more valuable to have a signalized intersection,” he said.

He stressed that development of the Wawa would include the widening of Route 818. There would be a new right turn lane and the Route 818 access to Wawa would line up with the entrance to the medical complex across the road.

“We’ve vastly improved what you see there,” he said. “There’s going to be a huge difference.”

Commission member Ron Cascio said SHA didn’t know the people of Berlin like commission members did.

“State Highway’s not going to be the ones with blood on their hands,” he said.

Commission member Erich Pfeffer said commission members spoke as representatives for the townspeople. Buas said he had a right to build a commercial facility on a commercially zoned piece of land the town had annexed. Widdowson maintained that the only entity that could bring a signal to the intersection was SHA.

“You will be turning down a plan you already approved,” he said, referencing the commission’s 5-1 vote to approve the 7-Eleven in 2021.

Commission member Matt Stoehr said the town had changed in the past three years.

“Do you think without development there there’s a better chance you’re going to get a traffic light?” Buas responded. “If nothing changes nothing’s going to change.”

Commission member Newt Chandler agreed that more development in the area could push SHA to install a traffic light. Stoehr maintained that motorists from westbound Route 50 turning left and crossing eastbound Route 50 to get to the Wawa would create dangerous traffic conditions.

Attorney Regan Smith said the town had wanted the property annexed, had charged the property owner for water and sewer and had approved the site plan for a 7-Eleven but now that it was a Wawa, officials didn’t support it. He stressed that the annexation agreement for the property stipulated that it should be a convenience store, despite the commission’s various concerns.

“The town leadership is inconsistent with you,” he said.

Cascio said the commission was worried about the health and safety of the town’s residents.

Cosby said he wanted the Wawa but felt developers hadn’t heeded his request in December for architectural improvements.

“All I asked for was some architectural bones,” he said. “I don’t see it here.”

“It’s horrendous,” Cascio agreed.

Widdowson said there were plenty of buildings in town that had no architectural quality. He also said the proposed building was built to code.

“We’ve got to have some guidance,” Widdowson said.

Cosby said maybe red brick, awnings or faux windows would help. Buas said Wawa needed direct guidance, as they typically built to a town’s code.

Chandler said he’d be interested in what a Cape May Wawa looked like.

“Those towns have very specific requirements,” said Mike Willey of Silicato Development.

Steve Fortunato of Bohler Engineering said the group needed preliminary approval Wednesday for Wawa to continue moving forward. He suggested the commission provide preliminary approval with a follow-up letter addressing specific changes members would like to see to the elevations.

“Most national brands don’t have a problem with reasonable modifications,” he said. “What’s going to be a problem is time…What we want to try to achieve here is a path forward.”

Widdowson said Wawa would move on if too much time was spent in a back-and-forth on design.

“They are looking at other property because they are tired of this,” he said.

Cascio and Stoehr said they would not support the project because of traffic concerns.

“I don’t want to lose this project,” Cosby said.

Engelhart pointed out that the commission had worked with other national chains, including Royal Farms, Arby’s, Auto Zone and Dollar General in recent years to make their designs fit Berlin.

“We’ve managed to live with franchise architecture and get it altered,” he said.

He added that despite Widdowson’s assertions that the project was built to code, the code stipulated that the planning commission would approve all architectural elements of a project.

Pfeffer said he understood the developer couldn’t mandate a light but wanted a design that would “speak to the character of downtown Berlin.”

Chandler referenced the design Pfeffer presented for The Berlin Commons earlier in the meeting.

“Does that look like Berlin?” Chandler said, holding the rendering up. “I don’t think so.”

Cosby made a motion to approve the project subject to architectural approval after Wawa submitted new plans based on input received during the meeting. Project representatives indicated the input had been vague and broad.

“This is so nebulous,” Widdowson said.

Cascio agreed. “I concur. It’s a horrible system,” he said.

Cascio said that while Wawa was in a hurry Berlin was not. Stoehr pointed out that the commission had only been presented with the plans one time, in December, and that designers hadn’t even worked in the comments that had been made then. He said historically, when a developer made an effort to work with the town and returned after making improvements, a project was approved.

After multiple iterations of a motion to approve the project failed, a motion for preliminary site plan approval with the condition that the developer return with revised elevations passed 4-2. Cascio and Stoehr were opposed while commission member Austin Purnell was absent.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.