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Williamsport residents who oppose new Sheetz store meeting with town officials tonight

April 14, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

WILLIAMSPORT - As developers pursue plans to tear down an old factory to build a new, larger Sheetz in Williamsport, neighbors who oppose the idea are meeting with town officials Monday night in an attempt to thwart the project before it gets off the ground.

The public hearing, scheduled for 6:45 p.m., will precede a Williamsport Town Council vote on whether to give up a portion of a public alley that extends into the property designated for the new Sheetz.

Representatives from Sheetz and Bowman Development Corp. asked the council last month for rights to the 614-square-foot dead-end alley in order to square off the property and make room for more parking.

The new Sheetz convenience store would be just less than 4,000 square feet, comparable to the Huyett's Crossroads Sheetz at U.S. 40 and Md. 63, said Matt Donegan, manager of new business development for Bowman.

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It would be built across North Artizan Street from the existing one, on the site of the former Red Barron furniture store at 38 E. Potomac St. and the neighboring house at 20 N. Artizan Street, Donegan said. Both structures would be torn down, he said.

At a council work session last week, several residents argued that the new Sheetz would be bad for the town and asked the council to vote against abandoning the alley in order to discourage the project.

A larger Sheetz would bring more big trucks and other highway traffic into the town, making the intersection noisier and more dangerous, and lessening its small-town charm, former Williamsport resident Ralph Young told the council.

Residents also protested the idea of tearing down the Red Barron building, which was formerly the Willcraft Hosiery factory.

"We would like to see the historic aspects of the town preserved," said Ed Shaw, who lives across East Potomac Street from the building and would rather see it converted into apartments or used for small, locally owned shops.

"Mr. (Donald M.) Bowman has a great reputation in the area as a businessman that helps the community," Shaw said of the Williamsport-based development company's president. "We hope he would be able to use the old hosiery factory as something that would benefit the community, not be detrimental."

Judy Hoffman, another resident in the first block of East Potomac Street, said she thought a large Sheetz would be off-putting for visitors who come to see the C&O Canal.

"I think that bothers them because they're expecting to see a quaint, historic town," she said.

Opponents agreed a better location for the gas station and convenience store would be closer to the highway, away from the historic downtown area.

Sheetz site selector Allen Stevens said the company did consider alternatives closer to Interstate 81, but opted to rebuild in town to make the site more accessible from U.S. 11.

He said the new store would create numerous advantages for the town, including 10 to 15 new jobs, new projects and services, and improved parking and traffic flow as compared with the current location.

In addition, he said the old Sheetz site, which is adjacent to Byron Memorial Park, could be used for something more appropriate to that location.

"We're going to build a really nice-looking Sheetz store," Stevens said. "I think we're going to really clean up that corner."

Stevens said it is in the town's best interest to abandon the piece of alley in question because it is of no use to the town and, if it is acquired by the developers, the town would be able to collect taxes on it.

However, if the town does not give up the alley, it won't necessarily stop the project, Stevens said. Developers could still work out a plan to build the Sheetz around the alley, sacrificing some parking, he said.

The alley abandonment is the first of several approvals developers plan to seek from the town. Eventually, they will have to get a site plan approved and a building permit issued by planing and zoning officials, Donegan said.

In addition, Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II said developers will need to get a special exception required by the town in order to install gas pumps.

Bowman has a contract agreement to buy the properties from their current owner, Higher Ground Realty LLC, if the Sheetz project is approved, Donegan said. Bowman would then lease the property to Sheetz, he said.

The issue is complicated by the fact that at least two council members will need to abstain from voting on issues related to the project due to conflicts of interest, McCleaf said.

Donegan said he hoped the remaining members would treat the request fairly.

"The elected officials need to do their job and look at both sides of the argument and figure out which is the appropriate course of action to take," he said.

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