Hurlock Dollar General rezoning is a bust

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HURLOCK — The June 8 meeting of the Hurlock Town Council was supposed to be the grand finale for rezoning properties at 206 and 210 S. Main St. It seemed like a slam dunk when the town purchased 208 for $34,000 in preparation in anticipation of development for the area. Oxford-Chase Development Corp. proposed a Dollar General store on residential lots 206 and 210 if they were rezoned to commercial. A zoning hearing was held on May 26 at which the corporation’s attorney presented one side and attorneys hired by residents adjacent to the contested properties presented the opposition.

On the surface it seemed a simple vote – for or against. It was, however, far from simple. Town Attorney Robert Merriken drafted a proposed “findings of fact” based on language and input from the May hearing and from individual council members. He listed the exhibits shown at the hearing and the legal requirements for rezoning. To meet those legal prerequisites, the council had to consider the “purpose and effect of the proposed rezoning.” Among 8 requirements to be proven as “met” at the hearing, only two had to be judged by the council since the other six were either not relevant or passed the burden of proof test.

First, the council had to agree that the applicant (Oxford-Chase) met its burden of proof that it was a mistake to retain the mixed use zoning classification on 206 in 1990. Second, the council had to agree the applicant met its burden of proof there has been a substantial change in the character of the neighborhood. By agreeing that a mistake was made and the neighborhood’s character had substantially changed, both properties could then be voted on for rezoning.

The third question for the council was should the rezoning be granted?

Councilman Earl Murphy said he has spoken with numerous residents and found that in addition to those who expressed opposition at the hearing he heard from people who welcomed the store and anticipated finding part-time employment.

Councilman Jerry Rhue said the 30+ valid signatories to a petition opposing the rezoning were small compared to the number of residents and if there were numerous opponents they were not present at the hearing or the evening’s council meeting.

“Both sides have weight and credibility,” said Councilman Charles Cephas. He found it “troublesome” if residents are “forced” to accept something they do not want. He expressed concern that other stores could experience substantial “lost revenue.” He also weighed the positive economic factor of additional revenue for the town.

Before the vote the council appeared perplexed by the procedure which was, admittedly, complicated. Attorney Merriken explained that the first order of business was a vote on question 1 regarding the applicant’s contention that there was a zoning mistake regarding 206. The burden of proof was on Oxford-Chase. Voting “yes” were council members Charles Cephas, Bonnie Franz, and Jerry Rhue; council member Earl Murphy voted “no.”

Voting “yes” on question 2 were members Murphy and Rhue; members Cephas and Franz voted “no.” The motion failed to carry because a tied vote is considered a “no.” So, the applicant did not meet its burden of proof that there was a substantial change in the neighborhood. Audience and council members were left scratching their heads. That knocked out lot 210 from consideration.

Because only one of the two questions passed, the council could only vote on a decision to grant the rezoning request for property 206. Because of a split vote on question 2 the council could only vote on 206 which, council agreed, experienced a “mistake” in 1990 rezoning.

The vote on question 3 appeared to be agonizing for Mr. Murphy who did not believe a mistake had been made on 206. Tension increased throughout the room as everyone, for or against the rezoning, waited for his answer.

After several minutes Councilman Murphy said he was “disappointed that this is going down because I am for the rezoning.” However, he did not feel the applicant had met its burden of proof regarding a rezoning mistake in 1990. He explained that if a mistake was made it could have been corrected in a 1993 rezoning and therefore voted no to question 1. “I am very upset that I have to vote ‘no’ tonight.” He had no problem with rezoning but because of the way these questions were presented he had to say “no.”

Council member Franz voted ‘no’ based on the opinions of her constituents that the proposed location is not appropriate.

Council member Rhue abstained.

Mr. Merriken explained that because the council agreed that a zoning mistake was made on parcel 206 but there was no change in the neighborhood character, property 210 was dropped from consideration.
Oxford-Chase’s request for rezoning failed to carry.

Councilman Cephas said, “I am disappointed that the gentlemen from Oxford-Chase did not entertain the idea of another location.” Mr. Cephas is “very concerned” that the town may be considered anti-business by prospective businesses for denying the rezoning but feels the evening’s vote was “just one glitch” in having a successful town.

Mr. Murphy felt a precedent was “unfortunately” set for a potential business community. He said that the rezoning could allow a new business to come to town, not just Dollar General. The councilman felt he was simply “caught up on a technicality” because he supported the rezoning but not the 1990 zoning “mistake.”

Ms. Franz commented, “I think Charles said it all.”

Councilman Rhue was visibly upset that, in his opinion, “the majority doesn’t always rule.” He hopes the vote “doesn’t kick us down trying to get businesses into town.” He did not feel the evening’s vote represented the population of the whole town.

A clearly disappointed Mayor Spratt recounted the town’s history with Oxford-Chase. She noted that 8 years ago several people met with Oxford-Chase principal John Camp to discuss bringing a chain grocery store to town. The theory at that time was that by bringing a Dollar General to town, it would be easier to lure a supermarket. “I never had any intentions of this turning into a catfight but that’s exactly what it has turned into.” She felt a Dollar General would not change the town’s look any more than JC Collins’ wood business has. “He has a working business right downtown.”

She said, “It’s a shame. We’ve spent money on this – your money.” The mayor did not believe the location was the main problem but that some people thought a Dollar General would “run some people out of business.” She disagreed, adding that she is not “done by any stretch.” She noted that she would like to be “paid for the hours that John and I have worked on this.” She suggested that opponents ask themselves how they can help getting some businesses here. “I’m disappointed in how the council voted but it’s done; it’s over.”

In public comments, resident Paul Grahe said, “I think we’ve seen a train wreck here tonight.” He suggested that the “opposition” to a Dollar General should put their efforts to restoring the dilapidated houses along Main Street.

Blanche Powell hopes the “council and town members will take a positive message from this” (rezoning denial) and, by visiting other small towns, ask “What are we missing in this town and what do we want to bring to this town?”

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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