By JOHN T. WARD
A proposal to convert the East Front Street Welsh Farms store into Red Banks second 7-Eleven hit a curb Monday night when officials questioned the conditions under which the convenience store was allowed to open in 1975.
Neighbors packed a planning board hearing on the matter, mobilized by concerns that a business that now closes by 10 p.m. will become a garishly lit traffic-and-litter generator operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The nearly ubiquitous convenience-store chain, with 45,000 stores in 16 countries, proposes to add a 356-square-foot freezer to the rear of the existing building, and otherwise make cosmetic changes that its representatives characterized as improvements over existing conditions. These include better lighting with less impact on neighboring properties, landscaping and a more attractive parking lot, they said.
The only variance 7-Eleven seeks is in connection with an illuminated sign on the facade that would be elevated by about eight feet.
Company officials maintain that their plan to operate the store around-the-clock requires no town approval. Attorney Philip San Filippo and planning consultant Rob Freud opined that the store is and always has been a permitted use within its zone, and that variances granted 37 years ago to allow it to additionally operate as a gas station came with no restrictions on hours of operation. The gas pumps were removed about seven years ago, he said.
“At any point, he could have opened that store 24/7,” San Filippo said of the Welsh Farms owner, Atul Patel of Dina Enterprises. “If you look at all the documentation going back to 1975, you will not find one condition of approval… which limits the hours of operation.” He said town officials barely mentioned the hours in their discussions.
But present members of the board, as well as board Attorney Michael Leckstein, wondered if that wasn’t because there was an understanding back then that the store would not be open all night.
Even if there was little or no discussion, the hours were “on the plan” back in 1975, “and it’s been complied with for 35 years,” Leckstein said. The original variances may have been granted “based on the hours of operation,” he said.
Mayor Pasquale Menna said he was “aghast” in reading the original record of zoning board and mayor-and-council discussions to allow the store and station. He termed the approval “one of those good-old boy variances.”
Menna’s comments followed an observation by borough Engineer Christine Ballard, of T&M Associates, that, “with this [requested] variance, the internally illuminated sign will go from turning off at some point” to remaining lit overnight, which she appeared to suggest would call into question all the original approvals.
Menna asked that the board call on borough Planner Richard Cramer, also of T&M, to analyze the original documents “to give us some historical perspective. The record in my opinion is really very scant in terms of the reasons for the variance.”
Opponents have also raised objections over truck delivery noises, litter and the potential for crime.
“You’ve got another 7-Eleven three blocks away,” John Garofalo of Wallace Street said, referring to a store on Maple Avenue at West Front Street. “Why in god’s name would you want to put one here?”
Rose Costa said her home is 300 yards away from the store, backing up on a ravine that also abuts the Welsh Farms property, and it is filled with store litter.
“I have enough garbage in the ravine to last me a lifetime,” she said.
The hearing was scheduled to continue March 19.