Attorney: Competitor uses ‘fear mongering’ to keep 7-Eleven out of Darien

Attorney Amy Souchuns shared a sign that she said was displayed in the window of a neighboring competing business near the site of the proposed 7-Eleven.

Attorney Amy Souchuns shared a sign that she said was displayed in the window of a neighboring competing business near the site of the proposed 7-Eleven.

Darien TV79

DARIEN — Town officials say they still lack concrete answers to questions about a proposed 7-Eleven, whose attorney claims a competitor used “fear-mongering” tactics to prevent the convenience store from being approved.

The hotly debated plan to construct a 7-Eleven convenience store and gas station at the site of the Duchess restaurant on Post Road near Exit 13 of Interstate 95 has drawn public criticism and feedback in recent months.

Amy Souchuns, an attorney for 7-Eleven, said some of the comments during public meetings have been “borderline reprehensible.”

“There was talk of riff-raff coming in from Norwalk and Bridgeport and asking if bodegas might be next,” Souchons said during last week’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting.

During the hearing, Souchuns shared a photo of a poster she said was prominently displayed at a nearby gas station. The name of the station was not disclosed.

The poster, Souchuns said, was trying to use “fear mongering” to generate negative public feedback about the proposed 7-Eleven.

“Oppose the zoning application,” the poster read.

“Is this what you really want?,” read the poster, which included photos of other 7-Elevens from around the country, some with police cars out front.

“We had two earlier public hearings without any negative feedback. I think a competitor wanted to inspire fear mongering, which results in this negative feedback,” Souchuns said.

Souchuns comments sparked a passionate exchange with Commissioner Cara Gately.

“We have never seen this and I want to point out this was introduced by the applicant. We would never consider this in our decision making. We don’t know where that came from,” Gately said.

“It is our belief that this public outcry was created by these signs that mischaracterized our application in order to generate public comment,” Souchuns replied.

Souchuns also said most of the negative public comment came from neighbors of the proposal who were the most likely to have seen the postings at the nearby gas station.

“Not only are these comments derogatory, they are well outside your jurisdiction,” she said.

Gately took issue with Souchuns’ characterization of the feedback the application has received.

“These are public hearings and the public has a right to be heard. This isn’t just a simple application. If it was, the public wouldn’t be interested in it,” Gately said.

Commissioner Jim Rand said he was “confused and disturbed about the combative nature of the hearings,” and frustrated at the lack of clear answers to some of the commission’s questions.

“We asked about whether there would be billboards on I-95. We were told it was highly unlikely. That’s not an answer,” Rand said.

He also said some of the responses were along the lines of, “Don’t worry about it, we know what we are doing.”

“It just creates some doubt in my mind that we have the kind of information we need to make an informed decision to meet our responsibilities as a commission,” Rand said.

Late last year, Darien Police Chief Donald Anderson said his department’s administration “has had numerous conversations with residents who have concerns about this proposal,” which included the potential for traffic increase in the area, more traffic collisions, pedestrian safety and criminal activity.

Duchess restaurant will be closed and demolished as part of the proposal, but the property will have the same owners, with 7-Eleven leasing it. A small area of inland wetlands is located off-site along the highway entrance ramp; it will not be affected by the development plan.

The plan would include a gas station, with convenience retail and accessory restaurant in a location “highly suitable for this type of use,” according to the application. It would include six pump islands with fueling on both sides for a total of 12 self-service diesel and gas houses on six pumps. It would also include a 4,000-square-foot building that would include typical convenience retail offerings as well as a quick-service restaurant.

The gas station would no longer be open 24 hours as initially proposed, but rather 5 a.m. to midnight. No alcohol will be sold on the premises.

Chairman Steve Olvany estimated there would be at least six trucks delivering gas a week versus the two to four trucks estimated by the applicant.

“You have six pumps, and 12 hoses. That’s a big station,” he said.

The town’s legal traffic authority has recommended against approving the application solely based on the traffic impact.

The Planning & Zoning Commission next meets on Tuesday, but 7-Eleven is not on the agenda. The commission needs to hold another discussion on the proposal before voting.