ROCK HALL - The planning commission approved a controversial proposal Wednesday for a new discount store to locate in town. A decision on a second store was postponed due to the lateness of the hour and a technical flaw in the applicants' filing.
The Rock Hall town office auditorium was full for the meeting, with many residents coming out to voice their opposition to plans for both Dollar General and Family Dollar to open stores. The issue for residents is whether or not the added competition could lead to the closure of the locally owned grocery store, Bayside Foods.
Developers of Dollar General sought and received final approval of their site plan for the store, to be located off state Route 20, where they intend to demolish a vacant bank building. Attorney Anne Ogletree, on behalf of Bayside Foods, filed an appeal Tuesday of the decision in the Circuit Court of Kent County.
Family Dollar, if approved, also will be located off Route 20 near Walgreens. Bayside Foods is located across the road from both sites.
“In terms of our presentation, we didn't bring you a dog-and-pony show tonight because we're here for final [review],” said attorney Dan Saunders, representing Oxford Chase Development Inc., which is heading up the Dollar General project.
Saunders said the town's planning commission had given the group during the preliminary site plan review a set of conditions to be followed, and the developers complied. He said the staff report, presented by Kent County's planning director, Amy Moredock, showed the proposal conforms to the town's code.
Moredock said Dollar General was a permitted use for the space.
Victor Costa, who took the Rock Hall Planning Commission's helm after announcing at the meeting Chairman Ed Kurowski's resignation, asked the developers about adding more sidewalks so pedestrians have safer access to the store.
Howard Crossan, of Oxford Chase, said the areas where sidewalks were requested are State Highway Administration right of way, so it would be up to that agency to decide on them.
Questions from the audience and Ogletree, representing Bayside Foods, focused on various changes to the plan such as parking and square footage – both made either at the planning commission's request or in accordance with the town code – and details like stormwater management, also meeting all requirements according to the planning staff.
“This is about 'We don't want Dollar General as a neighbor' and parking is just an excuse,” said Saunders of the repeated questions from the audience about adequate parking.
There also was debate as to whether Dollar General should be considered a grocery store, rather than a variety store, since, as some audience members said, it carries much of what can be found on grocery store shopping lists. Such a change in classification would have required more parking spaces. The planning commission did not change the classification.
“Bay Foods is not a florist because they sell flowers. We are not a shoe store because we sell boots. This is a variety store in any industry definition,” Saunders said.
Audience members were concerned about the economic viability of a discount store, or two as the case may be, in Rock Hall – which was described as a town at a dead end with the Chesapeake Bay. They wanted to know if the site was properly vetted by the corporation, which Crossan said had been done.
“There has been an extensive amount of involvement with Dollar General in this marketplace. Now, I didn't fall off a truck and just come to Rock Hall. So Dollar General wants to be in this market,” he said.
Ogletree and others in opposition were rebuffed in their questions about whether or not Dollar General conforms with Rock Hall's comprehensive plan. Ogletree said the code requires consideration in site plan reviews. Oxford Chase representatives refused to answer questions relating to the comp plan.
“We're here to give you our presentation and show you how it complies with your ordinance and your zoning map,” Saunders told the planning commission.
Saunders and Ogletree disagreed in their summations about the role the comp plan plays in development decisions.
Ogletree said the economic objectives in the comp plan must be considered along with the building standards, and the Dollar General proposal does not conform to economic standards.
“This is the exact antithesis of it, and I believe that you have the absolute right and perhaps the obligation to turn this application down based solely on the comprehensive plan,” she said.
Saunders said the comp plan is a statement of policy, on which the town's code must be consistent. He said any laws enacted must be consistent with it.
He also said the planning commission is an adjudicative body that makes decisions based on current codes, not a legislative body empowered to enact policy.
“The fact that the comprehensive plan says that the town should support local business does not translate and cannot be translated to mean the town can keep out competition so that local businesses can thrive,” said Saunders. He said that would violate state and federal antitrust laws.
The Dollar General site plan was approved, following nearly three hours of questions and testimony starting at 7 p.m. from the applicants and audience. Chants of “boycott” went up from some audience members as the developers left the meeting at about 10 p.m.
Since the planning commission decided the meeting would close at 11 p.m., that left an hour for Family Dollar's preliminary site plan review,
Developers Ralph Larson and Conny Malmberg faced many of the same questions from the audience about their plan.
A woman in the audience asked if an environment consultant was brought to review the site, as required by the federal government, since she said people reported seeing eagles in the woods adjacent to the property.
“We'll check into it by final [review],” Malmberg said.
One issue noted with the Family Dollar submission was the improper scale of the site plan. Ogletree and another audience member said the plans were set at a 1:30 scale, when the town requires 1:20.
Mitch Mowell, the planning commission's attorney, confirmed the requirement and asked why the plans were not drawn to the proper scale. Engineer Doug Liberman said the plans fit better at 1:30.
When asked if the issue created a prejudice for anyone, there was a pause before one woman said she could not properly read the map.
The planning commission agreed to continue the Family Dollar review at its meeting next month – 7 p.m. March 13 at the town hall. It may take up the question of the map's scale at that time.