Convenience comes at a cost to neighbors

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Gotta have a Wawa? Nah-uh.

According to residents living in the vicinity of the defunct Wawa at the corner of Fourth Street and West Avenue, another convenience store opening in that location would be a step above a crack house moving into the neighborhood. Trash, traffic and noise were the primary complaints year-round residents in the 300 and 400 blocks of West Avenue voiced against the convenience store chain during the public comment portion of last week’s Zoning Board meeting.

The bulk of the Jan. 18 meeting was devoted to discussion of an application for use and density variances being sought for the Wawa site, which has lain fallow for a reported four years. The proposal, to subdivide the two lots into six lots and construct six duplexes, also sought relief from the neighborhood business zone requirement that the buildings’ first floors be designated commercial.

Residents spoke favorably of the proposal, regarding it as an opportunity for the city to eliminate what homeowner Dale Braun labeled “a blight on the neighborhood” in favor of what he and others called “quality, affordable housing that will attract families with school children.”

Families with school-age children are rare specimens in Ocean City, where one of the legacies of the overheated real estate market of the mid-2000s is a high school that draws heavily upon sending districts to maintain its population and two primary schools with student bodies that continue to dwindle.

The argument that 12 housing units are too few to reverse the town’s status as a second-home haven was ignored by Wawa’s neighbors. Michael Hoffman, broker/owner of Marr Agency with 43 years experience in Ocean City’s real estate industry, said in his expert testimony that the dozen duplex units represented “an opportunity to make a statement.”

More like a whisper. With nearly 21,000 housing units on the island, according to the 2010 US Census, 12 units aren’t a statement. Twelve units are 0.00057 of the island’s housing stock, a number that looks a lot like zero.

Wawa’s neighbors persisted in painting the convenience store the very picture of perversion, blaming it for everything from diminishing their enjoyment of their properties to discouraging people from establishing year-round residency. Said Barbara Davis, a seven-year resident of the 400 block of West Avenue, “The quality of life greatly improved since Wawa closed.”

Braun, who did not purchase his housing unit in the 300 block of West Avenue on the same side of the street as Wawa until after the store had closed, decreed, “A convenience store is not necessary if you live here.”

He bought his property under the assumption that since Wawa is closed, no other business will open in that location, a sentiment shared by his neighbors.

“If Wawa’s not going to make it, no one’s going to make it,” said Ronald Weick, a resident of the 400 block of West and owner of two properties in the 300 block.

This statement appeared to become almost a mantra, to be repeated by the faithful until it comes true.

But the argument, no matter how popular among those living in the area, is flawed. There is no guarantee that any property, once vacated by a commercial tenant, will remain so. Moving into a neighborhood where a business use is permitted means there’s a chance that use could be acted upon.

Despite all the unflattering things the neighbors had to say, Ken Muller, senior portfolio manager for Wawa Inc. for 30 years, could only point to graffiti and skateboarding on the property as problems of which he’d been made aware since that store sold its last Shorti hoagie more than 1,000 days ago.

In the end, the application for use and density variances was tabled at the applicant’s request. Much to the neighbors’ chagrin, Fourth Street and West Avenue still has a Wawa.


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