SHIRLEY — The new gas station/convenience store, tentatively slated for the vacant site of a former Citgo station at 12 Front St., has been an unfulfilled vision for some time. It still is.
The project proponent, Prit Patel, owns the property and other businesses, including a coin-op laundry next door and Net Variety, a convenience store across the street.
On and off since 2018, the project has one of two nods needed from the Planning Board, which granted a special permit, for the second time, but has not yet moved to the site plan review phase of the process.
A subsequent Zoning Board of Appeals decision to deny two variance applications for the same project brought the process up short, presenting a roadblock that could take a change of plans to overcome.
The plan presented to the Planning Board Board at a recent public hearing calls for a gas station/convenience store set-up with four, two-sided gas pumps and a lighted canopy overhead.
The store would be at ground level in a two-story building, the foundation for which is already in place.
And there lies the rub, or one of them. The existing foundation is larger than zoning allows.
The other game-changing problem is that zoning requires a set percentage of the site’s surface area to be “permeable” or unpaved, a benchmark the current layout can’t meet.
Patel filed two variance applications, seeking leeway on those points. The ZBA denied both requests.
The proponent could change plans to comply with zoning, however, in which case, the ZBA vote would be moot. Specifically, the changes would need to address two issues: foundation and pavement areas.
Back in 2018, Patel told a reporter he hoped the new facility would be up and running by early 2020. But the site stayed empty, no signs of work in progress. Then, the state-wide pandemic shut-down hit.
By then, the Planning Board had approved the site plan, first time around, no special permit required. Based on its previous use, the owner had a “by right” go-ahead to build a new gas station on the old Citgo site, per zoning for the Village business district.
With that “grandfathered” window now closed, Patel filed a new application with the Planning Board, having put the lot up for sale in the meantime.
At a Sept. 28 public hearing, Patel again made his case to the board, with a map showing the new facility relative to surrounding properties, the nearby train stop and Front Street, a patch of which, his attorney pointed out, Patel owns but has allowed the town to pave over and use as public roadway.
Colorful drawings depicted a modern, “state of the art” facility, suggesting a toned-down, mini-version of the sprawling, truck-friendly All-Town facility in Ayer, with a dozen gas pumps and a store.
Plans for the smaller Shirley scenario feature a two-story building with a convenience store licensed to sell beer and wine, possibly with rental space on the second floor.
And, the attorney noted, it would have fewer canopy lights than the larger, All-Town facility, which doesn’t seem to bother its neighbors, he said. Light impact was one of the issues raised at the hearing.
Others included whether two pumps would be better than four.
Residents weighed in on both sides. Most were for it, with caveats.
Susan Baxter, of Hazen Road, didn’t favor the project. While she supports new businesses, she said development so far “hasn’t done much” for the town. “I don’t think we need a gas station in Shirley,” she said, noting that there are already gas stations east and west of the area, each a short drive away.
A. Dawn McCall, of Walker Road, disagreed. She wants a gas station in town, she said. This one would be of modest size, she said, with hours of operation key to addressing lighting concerns.
Board member Janet Tice said the lighting issue would come up during the board’s site plan review.
Aaron Griffin, of Holden Road, who has lived in town for 76 years, “longer than anyone…” in the room, he posited, recalled that Shirley once had 11 gas stations. He cited each location, including single pumps at several auto repair shops around town, some next door to each other.
There are none now. “It’s pitiful …” he said. “We need at least one gas station in town,” he said, urging a thumbs up for the project.
Alison Tocci, who co-owns the Bull Run Restaurant on Great Road with her husband, George Tocci, said she grew up in town, too, and remembers pop-up gas stations dotting the landscape, a scene she wouldn’t want to repeat. But she doesn’t like the modern, one-model-fits-all trend other communities have adopted, either, she said.
“This town has an opportunity to lead” she said, by setting expectations for new facilities like the gas station, rather than accepting a developer’s vision. “It doesn’t have to be ugly,” she said.
Bettina Shepard, of Great Road, said she wants businesses in Shirley, to keep property taxes down.
But she was worried that the convenience store could have a negative effect, if it means closing Net Variety, across the street. Patel owns that store and the building its in, she said and she wondered what happens to the old store once the new one opens. “Will it just be an empty dump?” she asked.
Not a matter for this discussion, she was told. Nor is it an issue this board can address.
Patel, however, previously told a reporter that once the new facility was operational, he’d close Net Variety and that he hoped its beer and wine license could be transferred to the new business. As for the old building, he was looking to lease it out, he said.
John Guthrie, a resident for 52 years, said he heads out of town, hunting for low gas prices and would likely still do so if the new gas station gets built. But the Fire Dept., Police and DPW could gas up there, and that’s a plus, he said.
Betsy Colburn noted that the “business part” of town has shrunk and that gas stations are key to its infrastructure. Shirley should have “at least one,” she said. But it should be “scaled” to fit the village.
Board member Barbara Yocum was leery of the images presented: a “monolithic” canopy looming over four gas pumps. In her view, the set-up exceeds the town’s needs. Two pumps would be sufficient, she said, with less impact on the village neighborhood.
Yocum made a motion to cut the number of gas pumps from four to two. It failed.
Bonnie Lawrence said she had reservations, too. But she conceded that her concerns, and others, could be addressed during the site plan review phase, when details get hashed out.
Member Bill Oelfke’s motion to approve the special permit application, with no conditions, passed, 4-1.
The next step would be for the board to begin its site plan review at the next session. But the ZBA nipped things in the bud the following night, when it denied both of Patel’s variance applications.
Asked what happens now, Oelfke said it’s up to the proponent, who might re-start the process if he changes his plans to fit zoning laws, no variances required. In that case, the ZBA vote would be moot.
It was not clear what Patel plans to do. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
The Planning Board will revisit the matter at its meeting on Nov. 9.