The Rock Hall Planning Commission on Wednesday approved final plans for Howard H. Crossan of Oxford Chase Retail to build a Dollar General at the abandoned PNC bank site on Route 20, between Pasta Plus and West Marine.
The vote came after three hours of protests from a full house of angry residents who echoed one after the other that the Planning Commission had not applied the economic litmus test to the corporate chain’s potential to adversely impact locally owned businesses—as required by the comprehensive plan.
Residents worry that the presence of a large corporate chain would unfairly compete with Bayside Foods—Rock Hall’s longstanding locally owned grocery store that offers its employees paid vacations, retirement, healthcare, and a living wage.
By comparison, opponents said, the Dollar General relies almost exclusively on part-time workers earning the minimum wage and without health care benefits. The chain also has immense purchasing power to undercut Bayside Foods, which cannot buy direct from suppliers and must go through a wholesaler.
“It’s back to that ‘price of everything and the value of nothing’ mentality,” muttered an audience member.
Residents also charged that the Planning Commission incorrectly approved the project as “variety store” and not a “grocery store.” A variety store has less stringent zoning requirements.
Anne Ogletree, the attorney representing Bayside Foods, submitted published documents into evidence that Dollar General’s business model has evolved to that of a grocery store, with 71 percent of its retail revenue gained from groceries and other consumables. Crossan says that only 14 percent of the chain’s retail space is allocated for grocery items and other consumables.
Ogletree said the Dollar General is classified as a grocery store under OSHA law and the federal standard.
Also submitted into the record was a petition of over 400 signatures from residents opposing a Dollar General in Rock Hall.
Ogletree told the Spy that classifying Dollar General as a “grocery store” would change the parking requirements and leave the commission no choice but to reject the site plan, which the Planning Commission approved for 38 spaces under the “variety store” classification.
As a grocery store, Ogletree said the proposed 9,200 square foot building would require 92 parking spaces—one parking space for every 100 square feet.
Residents also voiced concern about the effect on real estate values and what affect Dollar General would have on tourists entering the town from Route 20.
“If you do some research, I think you will find that these stores come into communities and real estate values go down,” said Kathleen Johnson, owner of the Black Duck Inn. “I deal with tourists and none of the people that come to my bed and breakfast are interested in seeing a Rock Hall with a chain dollar store gracing the entrance to our town. People who come here repeatedly every year are going to have adverse affects about coming back just because they see there is a box store—the thing they are trying to get away from.”
“The one thing we have is our beauty,” Johnson said. “[The Dollar General] is going to change our community from the day it is committed, forever!”
After three hours of comments and questions from an agitated audience, Ogletree made closing remarks that the Planning Commission had ignored one of its mandates to apply the comprehensive plan to consider the financial impact on local businesses and the community as a whole, and she referred to Section 8 of the town’s site plan review policy.
“The objectives are ensuring a desirable, harmonious, and appropriate use of land in accordance with the objectives of the Comprehensive Plan,” Ogletree read from the Comprehensive Plan.
“The economic objectives of the comprehensive plan are every bit as important as what kind of siding is on the building and whether or not there are 34 parking spaces or 46 parking spaces,” Ogletree said. “In fact it is more important because what your are doing tonight is deciding the future of your town.”
She said Dollar General’s proposal does not meet the economic requirements of Rock Hall’s Comprehensive Plan and cited a recent case in Baltimore County that unanimously upheld the mandates of a comprehensive plan in zoning decisions–beyond just mere guidelines.
“The court found that if a comprehensive plan is used to measure development in the ordinance and in the code, and it says that in your code, then it becomes more than just a guide, it becomes a mandatory requirement…and it is something you need to consider,” Ogletree said.
Oxford Chase Attorney Dan Saunders told the Planning Commission that the site plan conformed to the guidelines the commissioners established at the onset of the project, and that the commission was constrained only to consider whether the plan submitted met the zoning requirements. Saunders referenced earlier comments by Kent County Planning Zoning Director Amy Moredock, who said the site plan had met all zoning requirements.
“The sole task before us is whether this plan satisfied this ordinance,” Saunders told the Planning Commission, “And it does.”
He said the town’s comprehensive plan cannot offer protection to Bayside Foods.
“The fact that the comprehensive plans says the town should support local businesses does not translate and cannot be translated that the town shall keep out competition so that local businesses can thrive,” Saunders said. “That is not what it means, and it can’t be what it means. Even if it said that, it would be stricken because it would be an illegal law.”
He said blocking Dollar General’s application to help Bayside Foods would violate anti-trust laws.
“It’s prevented under Maryland law and it is prevented under federal law,” he said.
Ogletree told the Spy after the meeting that the decision would be appealed to the Kent County Circuit Court on the grounds that the planning commission failed to consider the economic interests of the community as written in their comprehensive plan.
“The Rock Hall comprehensive plan has a series of areas of concentration and one of them is economics. And it says that to produce a sustainable community, one has to support local business,” Ogletree said. “They don’t want chain stores because it puts out local businesses.”
She said support of local business is made clear in page 28 of Rock Hall’s comprehensive plan and recent case law affirms that when a comprehensive plans is referred to in a municipality’s development ordinance, it must be considered in the site plan review process by the planning commission.
Ogletree referred to page-3 of the comprehensive plan which governs all development ordinances of the town.
She said the appeal would be filed in the next few days.