Hurlock Town Council hears Dollar General testimony

MD-Hurlock meeting

Dorchester Banner/Susan M. Bautz
Hurlock planning and zoning consultant Linda Nabb presented the findings and recommendations of the Planning and Zoning Committee regarding a request by Oxford-Chase Development Corp. for its client Dollar General to rezone two Main Street properties.

HURLOCK—At a marathon 4.5 hour Hurlock town council meeting on May 26 the council considered a request from Oxford-Chase Development Corp. to rezone 206 and 210 S. Main Street from R-3 residential to C-2 commercial. Their client, Dollar General, hopes to build a 9,100 sq. ft. building at the site. Concerned citizens whose homes are near or adjacent to the planned store attended to protest the rezoning.

Planning consultant Linda Nabb presented a comprehensive report from the Planning & Zoning Committee following a public presentation on April 9 by Oxford-Chase. The committee recommended the zoning change by 4-1 to the town council who will make the final decision at the June 8 town meeting.

Zoning changes are big deals that often raise emotions and blood pressure. Town attorney Robert Merriken said he would run the hearing and he intended to keep order. Suddenly the room felt like a courtroom. The attorneys were all business; residents were anxious to speak; no one knew if things would get out of hand. They didn’t. Witnesses were sworn in, testified, and answered questions strictly on their testimony.

Oxford-Chase lawyer Joseph Stevens forcefully presented his client’s case. Robert B. Taylor and Raymond “Steve” Smethurst, Jr. represented several homeowners adjacent to the properties.

Barry F. Griffith, president of Lane Engineering Co., testified as an expert urban planner. He explained the zoning history of the S. Main St. properties; how they changed from residential to commercial or from commercial to residential; and, how planning is affected when a residential property sits between two commercially zoned properties. He felt that a mistake was made in 2001 when a sectional rezoning did not consider a residential property at #208 between two commercial properties. Mr. Stevens noted that a “mistake” in a zoning classification is a valid reason to re-consider a past decision.

Mr. Griffith said the properties in question are at “the edge of” an older, historic downtown commercial area and part of an area of change on S. Main St. He also noted that the area is “less than 1%” of the total town area.

Mr. Griffith reported that the “incremental incursion” from downtown along Main St. resulted in an ultimate commercial expansion in a “transitioning” neighborhood. His main arguments were that re-zoning in 1985, 1990, 1993, and 2001 set a precedent; and, the town’s Comprehensive Plan sets the stage for expansion of commercial. He asked how Hurlock wants to see itself in the future. The character of the neighborhood has already changed, but is it a good or bad thing to continue? Do residents want the change to continue or should commercial development, other than the existing small, family owned businesses, be placed outside of the town limits?

Resident Matthew Lawrence asked if the neighborhood is primarily commercial or residential. Mr. Griffith replied it is primarily residential but explained that what contributes to the deterioration of a neighborhood are vacant properties, not placing commercial next to residential.

Attorney Taylor emphasized that north of the disputed property is zoned commercial while the properties in question may be zoned commercial but are not used for commercial. He pointed out the number of “nice Victorian homes” in the area and asked, “How can you say a 130’ store is compatible with the neighborhood?” He argued that the proposed Dollar General does not fit the way the comprehensive plan describes downtown.

Attorney Stevens cited numerous non-residential, large parcels already in the area, including the fire department, a parking lot, school, church and the library. Mr. Taylor noted those are all long-standing, not commercial, and permitted in residential R-3 districts.

A principal in Oxford-Chase, John Camp testified that Dollar General stores in mixed use neighborhoods including single use family residences have “no compatibility issues at all.” He sees them as a convenience to customers and a trend of the times in downtown areas seeking commercial activity.
Mr. Camp was challenged by residents Patricia and David Eskridge who said the stores in Ridgely, Centreville, and Mardela Springs are not in neighborhoods like the one proposed in Hurlock.

Mr. Taylor raised the issue of tractor trailers servicing the store and countered Mr. Camp’s explanation that the large vehicles deliver once weekly. Mr. Taylor had photographs of other stores with additional trailers parked in the lot several days a week.

Real estate appraiser William Fitzhugh Turner testified regarding the potential impact of a zoning change on adjacent property values. He reviewed the 2009 comprehensive plan for existing uses and found that except for Collins Wood Products all the properties on Main St. from Gay to Delaware Ave. are designated “single family residential, institutional, or vacant.”

Mr. Turner expressed concern that with the proposed commercial property there will be a major change to the “façade of the street.” Sales are slow or nonexistent for many of the properties in town. He concluded that a change in street appeal would adversely impact area properties.

At that point Mr. Taylor noted that the town owns one of the parcels considered for the rezoning. In Aug. 2014 the council approved the purchase of 210 Main St. for $34,000. An ordinance was passed this year to sell it for $80,000 including settlement costs to Oxford-Chase thereby “doubling the money in less than a year.” Mr. Turner said the council has a vested interest in the rezoning. That did not sit well with council members.

Resident Erica Fox testified she does not want lights shining in her windows at night, fears more large truck traffic, and worries about the safety of small children. David Eskridge asked why the town would want to bring another store in town selling the same products as the Food Rite and Family Dollar. “To put one out of business?”

Lisa Murray has lived directly across from the properties since 1987. She understands the need for commercial venues but previous businesses were small, home-based and there has been no commercial usage for at least 10 years.

Robin Ruk, long time resident, asked if the council would agree to change the flavor of the community “for the sake of a business — not because your community is coming to you and asking for the change. We’re saying we’re not excited about this. This argument tonight is important because what we’re going to get tonight is what we’re going to have to live with.”

Resident Scott Lawrence said he has 42 signatures on a petition against the use of the three properties for a large business like Dollar General.

Patricia Eskridge noted she has lived in town for many years. She asked how Hurlock can retain its small town feel with a “big box” store.

Business owner J.C. Collins said people want the Dollar General but in an alternate location where it would not have “a negative impact. Tell them ‘come on, we want you, just in a different spot.’”
He asked council members to mean it when they say to constituents, “I represent you.”

Mr. Camp said that he has worked with Hurlock for 12-15 years and has looked at properties in different areas of town. He thinks the store will bring more economic vitality to the town and add to the tax base.

By 10 p.m. it was time for summations. Mr. Stevens said Oxford-Chase’s request for rezoning has met the required standards. The properties are a “blight.” They face a substantial amount of commercial property. The zoning change is not inconsistent with the comprehensive plan and, he said, the only legal requirement for the council is to consider that plan. He asked the council to “act favorably as your planning commission asked you to do.”

Mr. Taylor disagreed. He noted the requested change is substantial not just legal. “We really haven’t seen substantial change here since the rezoning in the 1990’s but there’s only been one commercial use in all that time. That’s not really ‘substantial’ change.” He said the question is, “Should it be done? What’s best for the community?”

A vote on the request will be taken at the June 8 meeting.

Following the hearing, mayor Joyce Spratt kept the regular meeting agenda to 30 minutes. She announced that state comptroller Peter Franchot will visit on June 12 and Food Rite owner Harry Patel will hold a grand reopening at 9am, June 13.

Mr. Merriken introduced the FY2016 budget ordinance which will be voted on following public hearings.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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