WOBURN - The City Council recently inquired about whether a Tesla Inc.'s proposed installation of a 14-bay electric car charging station at a Commerce Way department store constitutes an accessory use under Woburn's Zoning Ordinance.
During a recent virtual meeting via Zoom, the City Council voted unanimously to continue until a date uncertain the special permit request from the Palo Alto, Calif. carmaker, which wants to install the electric stations along a rear section of Target's parking lot at 101 Commerce Way.
The aldermen, who also referred the matter to its Special Permits Committee, are seeking a legal opinion from City Solicitor Ellen Callahan Doucette as to whether the installation, which involves subsurface trench and conduit line excavations, should be deemed a stand-alone petition instead of an accessory use to Target's main retail operation.
"It may make sense to have this come back to us as a revision to [Target's] existing special permit," noted Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, who pointed out that Tesla Inc., rather than Target, is listed as the petitioner on the special permit application. "We also have to resolve the accessory use matter [that has been raised by Building Commissioner] Tom Quinn."
During the recent public hearing, Tesla representative Ed Noseworhty explained that his company has an existing legal agreement with Tesla to install charging stations at Target stores across the country.
Saying the Woburn Target store is a particularly attractive site due to its proximity to two major highways — the Commerce Way property is situated directly off of I-93 by Anderson Regional Transportation Center — Noseworthy described the proposal as pretty innoculous in that 14 plug-in stations were being proposed for the rear of the store lot.
The installation itself would require the a connection to Eversource's infrastructure off Commerce Way, where a trenched conduit would be run to a pad-mounted AC to DC transformer and charger cabinets. That equipment would then be connected to 12 newly installed Tesla charging posts and two dual-charge posts.
"Our goal is to make charging ubiquitous [through arrangements with businesses like Target] and simple to fit into everybody's daily lives," said Noseworthy, who described the amenity as perfect for shoppers who planned on heading into the store to run errands. "You can shop, grab a coffee or snack, and charge conveniently."
According to Mercer-Bruen, whose district includes the Target shopping plaza, the proposal did indeed look benign and unlikely to cause major traffic or parking issues. However, she did wonder why the electric charging stations, which could be used by any Tesla car owner, shouldn't be considered akin to placing a petroleum station outside of the department store.
The East Woburn official's concerns were based off of similar questions being posed by the building commissioner, who suggested that use could be considered as a stand-alone operation — as opposed to an accessory use proposed in order to further Target's main retail business operation.
"For the most part, I think this is a relatively clean use that doesn't have much of an impact. But there have been some concerns expressed by the building commissioner. Can you explain how this is an accessory use?" she asked.
"These charging stations are essentially like a gas station [for electric cars]. I'd like to understand how you'd hand traffic flow. It's a big, big parking lot there, but it's also a very busy area," she added, pointing out that a Starbucks, as well as several other businesses, are accessed through the same entrance off Commerce Way.
According to Tesla officials, though the electric charging stations do serve as "fueling" areas, the comparison with traditional gas stations ends there due to the length of time needed to serve each customer.
Specfically, the petitioners' representatives responded, unlike a gas station, which has a quick turnover rate, each Tesla car owner would need to stay at the Target department store for at least a half-hour to sufficiently restore battery power.
"As far as equating it to a gas station, as far as the traffic [our equipment] generates, we just don't have that kind of turnover," said Tesla representative Trevor Smith. "The average lull time for out customers coming and an charging is about 30 minutes. So at most, you'd have 12 people coming in and charging [at each space on a daily basis]."
"I wasn't aware it took 30 minutes. I can now see how you view it as an accessory use," Mercr-Bruen answered.
Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately, apparently comfortable with the idea of the charging stations functioning as an accessory or high-tech amenity for Target shoppers, did have a number of concerns around the planned excavation of the parking area.
Specifically, because Target is located right within the city's Industri-plex Superfund site, where visitors are protected from contaminated soils by an impermeable cap, the South End alderman questioned whether the installation of three-foot deep "charging" posts would disturb that membrane.
Ward 7 Alderman Lindsay Higgins also questioned why Telsa Inc. was listed as the main petitioner, when Target — the beneficiary of the new "assessory use" — could easily modify its own existing special permit for the proposal.
"If that's your guideline, we'd be happy to go that route. Based on our research [of the city's process], we just thought this was the most appropriate way to proceed," said Smith.