“I’m thankful that nothing serious has happened out there, but it’s only a matter of time,” said Town of Montgomery Planning Board Chairman Fred Reichle.
Reichle spoke last week during a continuation of the public hearing for Phase II of the United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) food distribution facility on Neelytown Road. The project is an expansion of the site with the construction of a new building, approximately 160,000 square feet in size.
However, the current operation of the facility has resulted in tractor trailers regularly parking on the road for hours. The line of trucks waiting to access the facility on Neelytown Road—sometimes up to 19 trucks deep—locks up traffic in both directions. Town officials have been concerned about public safety as motorists attempt to pass the trucks parked in their lane, crossing into oncoming traffic.
Planning Board member John Brown said that he witnessed the traffic issue at UNFI firsthand in the middle of a weather advisory and ice storm in December, when about a dozen trucks were queued up on the road.
“It really has become a hazard,” said Brown.
The applicants have submitted a plan reconfiguring the parking lot, which they believe will accommodate the “peak amount” of tractor trailers without a loss of employee parking—but they don’t want to do it first, only as part of the construction of their expansion. Meaning that the parking lot would not be started until at least April, if the plan was approved.
With the construction of the expansion—the new large building—expected to take at least a year, the board wants the parking area to be completed first to get the trucks off the road.
As a kind of compromise, the board suggested restriping the parking area temporarily to relieve the situation until the parking area could be completed.
The applicant’s engineer, John O’Rourke, said it was more complicated than it seemed, involving operations and personnel, and he would get only 18 of the 25 spaces, due to site work that needs to be completed.
Regardless, Dominic Cordisco, attorney for the applicant, refused to agree to the compromise, and added that they wouldn’t do the parking lot first.
“I had a very clear conversation with my client today,” said Cordisco. “They’re going to mobilize once and they’re going to do all of it all together. They’re not going to do just the parking and then hang out there for Phase II development.”
Reichle said in that case, the expansion could “be in operation and we could still have a problem.”
The heart of the problem is that UNFI is not letting the trucks deliver into their facility if they arrive earlier than expected.
“It’s a food distribution facility so regulations are much more stringent,” said O’Rourke, explaining that timing is important at UNFI as they need to ship out product before they can make room to take in new product.
O’Rourke said that once UNFI checks them in, the shipment becomes their problem. They don’t want the blame if the food spoils because the driver is early and the truck has to sit for a while. They also can’t offload and set the shipment to the side—the product has to go into coolers and freezers.
Planning Board consultant Bonnie Franson said she’d reviewed C&S Wholesale Grocers in Chester—a food distribution facility with a different layout—and they didn’t have an issue with queuing.
Franson stated that the reality is “for whatever reason, this particular distribution facility, unlike all the others up and down Neelytown Road, has an issue with accommodating the people who bring you the goods.”
Cordisco said there have been “anecdotal responses” that other facilities on Neelytown Road are having the same issue, but the board has not heard of any others.
“We’ve maintained for over a year now that this is somehow a unique operational problem to UNFI and as a board, we’ve taken the position that it is just unacceptable to have trucks parked not only on the shoulders, but in the travel lane,” said Planning Board Attorney Richard Hoyt. “It seems to be getting worse.”
Cordisco laid the blame for the problem not on his client’s operations, but on the drivers of the tractor trailers, saying they did not have control over them. He told the board to have their town police ticket the drivers.
“It’s like people pulling up outside McDonalds for a McRib sandwich and they’re queuing out onto the roadway. There’s only so much that can be done if they’re driving illegally. Then it’s an enforcement issue,” said Cordisco.
Reichle said the police have been writing tickets, but the drivers just pay their fines and do it again.
“That’s not solving anything,” said Reichle. “It should be the responsibility of the receiver to be able to handle the vehicles, that’s how we look at it.”
It had been the planning board’s hope that bringing the traffic safety issue to the forefront of the process would quickly rectify it, but Hoyt said Cordisco seemed to be “minimizing the issue.”
“We can’t get the trucks off the road. We believe UNFI can, one way or the other—and that’s the reality,” said Hoyt.
Cordisco said the delay of the project has cost them “millions of dollars” as their construction costs are “far escalated” and they’re afraid they’re going to lose the current construction season. He repeatedly argued that there have been no changes to the proposed building since 2013 and the town is holding the building “hostage.”
“Site operations is what’s changed,” said Reichle.
The planning board stood its ground over the ongoing public safety issue and the public hearing devolved a couple times into the applicant’s attorney yelling at the board to just close the hearing and approve the project.
“Close the public hearing!” Cordisco yelled at the board, telling them there wasn’t a single member of the public present. “I’ve been asking you for months!”
Meanwhile, residents watching the live stream from home took exception and urged the chairman to stand his ground and not to believe the applicant or close the public hearing. Hoyt said closing the hearing would not make the issue go away.
“We have an unsafe situation on Neelytown Road and your client has not been addressing it,” said Reichle.
“We proposed plans to address them. All you need to do is approve them,” said Cordisco.
Obviously upset with the board, the applicant’s attorney threatened to abandon Phase II and the new parking area (leaving the traffic situation in place), or even to abandon the entire facility altogether.
“UNFI has already been talking about leaving this town,” said Cordisco.
The planning board’s attorney said he wasn’t making a threat, but explained that the traffic issue wouldn’t be dropped if the plan was abandoned.
“If you were to just pull out, Mr. Farr, in theory, could issue an Order to Remedy,” explained Hoyt. “And if you didn’t fix it, I think he has enforcement powers—to the point of shutting the place down. And do we want to go to that? No. But it doesn’t look like we’re getting the cooperation that I thought we’d be getting.”
Cordisco said he could commit to doing a post-construction traffic analysis, to be made a condition of the SEU permit, and to come back and address any concerns.
“We believe it’s going to work, but we’ll also show you, after it’s done, that this works—and if it doesn’t work, then you have existing and continuing authority over us,” said Cordisco.
“I don’t know how this board adopts an SEU permit finding that those issues are all resolved, no problem, in the hopes that it will be fixed later,” said Hoyt, questioning what they would say on the traffic portion.
The other issue is that the traffic problem is left unresolved for at least six months or longer.
“You want to do this when you start the building and who knows when that’s going to be?” said Reichle. “We’d just like to have this done and get it behind us. We’re prepared to approve it, but we’ve got to make sure that we’re not exacerbating the situation.”
The public hearing was continued to Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. The applicant is to provide written responses to the comments of the board’s consultants and advise the board about the proposal to tie the parking issue to the building permit.