They could have sold tickets to Tuesday’s meetings of the Halifax County Planning Commission and the Halifax County Board of Supervisors that immediately followed — it was that exciting.
In the end, supervisors rejected Par 5’s request to rezone the 1.49 acres originally targeted from A1 to B1 (commercial) for development of a Dollar General in the Cluster Springs community.
Developers roller-coasted from high to low, first gaining an initial thumbs-up from planners for rezoning and then reeling from the smack-down delivered by the full roster of supervisors who refused to rubber stamp the recommendation of the planning commission.
Instead supervisors launched into a lengthy debate about the size of the proposed parcel – 1.49 acres versus 39.19 acres—the impact of the proposed Dollar General on an adjacent landowner—and, finally, whether the site should be rezoned B1 commercial or offered to the developer under a conditional use permit (CUP), a situation Par 5 representative Zac Ivey told supervisors would be “a deal-breaker.”
For months, Par 5 Development Group, LLC has been lobbying county officials to rezone 1.49 acres owned by Ruth L. Green from A1 to B1, so the group can build and operate another Dollar General store in the Cluster Springs area.
Par 5 Development, LLC is a long-time partner with Dollar General stores and has built more than 90 new stores across North Carolina and Virginia.
Ivey told supervisors construction on the Cluster Springs store was scheduled to begin in February.
“What’s your drop dead deadline to resolve this zoning matter?” supervisors asked Ivey Tuesday evening.
“Yesterday…right now,” the developer replied—an answer ED-1 Supervisor J. T. Davis suggested “inadvertently” put the board into a corner.
“I’m not suggesting you want to pressure us,” said Davis, but the message was clear.
Over and over again, board members tossed out the “good neighbor” phrase, clearly trying, as ED-4 Supervisor and Halifax County Board of Supervisors Chair Dennis Witt put it, “to find common ground as a way of reaching higher ground.”
It was high drama in a county where personal relationships and reliable handshakes count — a performance in two acts, the first part starring Par 5’s man Ivey and his project manager, Michael Lynch of Engineering Concepts in Fincastle, Gary Rogers, an impassioned county landowner whose property lies across the road from the proposed Dollar General and “those huge yellow signs Dollar General puts up,” and the Halifax County Planning Commission.
From 5:30 p.m. to the beginning of the regular supervisors’ meeting at 6:30 p.m., Ivey and Lynch, sketches, design plans, facts and statistics in hand, worked hard to persuade planning commission members the Cluster Springs community would springboard into a more prosperous future via a motion to rezone the proposed site located on the west side of Huell Matthews Highway from A1 to B1 or B2 commercial zoning.
The script was full of twists and turns: by the January meeting, the original proposal submitted months earlier by Par 5 Development to rezone the 1.49 acres they need to build a new Dollar General had mushroomed into a tentative proposal to expand that site to 39.19 acres.
If rezoned as commercial property, to B1 or B2, the larger parcel would have provided a strip of property on which might have been constructed any additional number of business structures—in essence, a shopping mall for Cluster Springs.
For ED-6 Supervisor Larry Giordano, in whose district the new mall or the new Dollar General would reside, the bigger the commercial rezoning the better: in an earlier meeting Giordano had said he believed the area was “ready for development” and the economic benefits it would bring.
Local landowner objects
Landowner and potential Dollar General neighbor Gary Rogers expressed displeasure at both the public hearings.
But Rogers, whose property on the other side of the road, runs parallel from a storage facility across the street (zoned B1) and an Apple Market (zoned conditional use permit or “CUP”) to the perimeter of the former Cluster Springs Elementary School, made a compelling case that the proposed Dollar General would be better situated to the south, closer to the storage facility located across from the Shell store on the corner--an alternative option Rogers said VDOT would not oppose if developers applied for an entrance exception.
Rogers’ pitch to both the 5:30 p.m. meeting of the planning commission and to the 6:30 regular monthly meeting of the full board of supervisors was the same, but the planning commission’s indifferent response to the landowner’s concerns was markedly different from supervisors.
Rogers ticked off his concerns as follows:
• The first notice of the original proposal received by Rogers stated the store would be located south on State Route 658;
• As of last Saturday, his neighbor next to the land on Highway 501 had not yet received his notice;
• The site as currently proposed would locate a Dollar General with parking in front and two huge yellow signs — one raised high on a pole — directly across the street from his home: this would be the first thing he and his family would see exiting their front door, and “the reason I moved to Cluster Springs from South Boston was to get away from those kinds of sights.
• Rogers disagreed with rezoning the entire 39 plus acres; it would “make it look like we are not spot zoning and would open up the whole area to business parks, etc.”
• “VDOT,” said Rogers, “will approve an entrance at the proposed turn-around on 501 downhill from the Shell station.”
Rogers continued, “I use this crossover daily. You cannot see the cars coming until they are in front of the store about 400 feet. It will create a dangerous spot for traffic turning north. A tractor-trailer pulling out and going north will block both northbound 501 lanes for 10 to 15 seconds as it turns north…remember, two cars running 55 to 60 mph pop over the hill and have less than 400 feet to react to a blocked road.”
• Rogers finished, “I am not against the store being built, but I believe it should be given a conditional use permit to control what is built. The Dollar General storefront in Halifax is acceptable without glaring lights.”
Rogers said other Dollar Stores, particularly in North Carolina, boast big unsightly yellow signs, cheaper-looking facades and soon become infested with rodents, trash and other undesirable materials.
Rogers emphasized this would be the scene he would encounter daily from his own front porch.
A motion to limit the space to be rezoned from A1 to B1 to the originally proposed 1.49 acres was proposed by planning commission member Rosemary Ramsey and seconded by Mattie Cowan.
Planning commission members voted “aye” in a 5-3 vote to recommend B1 rezoning.
When the supervisors meeting got underway an hour later, Par 5 developers seemed confident, but the public hearing and the discussion quickly began to retrace ground just covered at the meeting of the planning commission.
Rogers turns the tide
Rogers, disheartened by the planning commission decision, repeated the same arguments he had made less than an hour earlier to planners.
Supervisors listened intently, consulting maps and survey documents closely and voiced sympathy with Roger’s predicament.
The landowner told supervisors he would probably move if a “typical” Dollar General with a brick and sheet metal façade and two huge, gaudy signs were erected across the highway from his house.
Witt told Rogers he had seen the landowner’s property, and it was indeed “very lovely and well-kept.”
With the sympathy of supervisors on his side, Rogers told the board he would not mind the construction of a Dollar General that resembled the store recently opened in Halifax that was built under a conditional use permit, and which allowed town officials to impose architectural and signage “conditions” on Dollar General owners.
The façade of the Halifax Dollar General is constructed of higher-quality materials replicating a residential “feel,” and the only signage is monument style, low to the ground, as opposed to the larger, pole-mounted yellow sign advertising the store in areas where residents cannot impose conditions on the construction of the building.
Dollar General developers unwilling to compromise
Supervisors began to negotiate informally, citing the need for “good neighbors” to compromise in ways that left everyone, if not fully, at least adequately satisfied.
Davis queried Lynch and Ivey about their read on the willingness of Dollar General owners to duplicate the more-costly but less offensive façade of the store in the town of Halifax.
But Ivey and Lynch told Davis they “could not speak for Dollar General in this regard, but they suspected the owners would insist on maximum cost-savings in regard to the proposed store on Huell Matthews Highway.”
Ivey pointed out the Cluster Springs site did not require developers to settle for a conditional use permit or to conform to the design choices of outside stakeholders.
At one point, Lynch left the room to discuss the matter via cell phone with a Dollar General executive and re-entered the supervisors’ chamber announcing store owners might be willing to eliminate the pole-mounted signage in favor of a monument style, but that this monument sign might be hoisted higher than it normally was to ensure visibility from the road.
Again, Planning and Zoning Administrator Detrick Easley pointed out once the board voted in favor of B1 rezoning, county officials and the community would have no legal or regulatory recourse to impose design or other changes to the new Dollar General.
Witt, blocked every time he proposed a mutually satisfactory solution, said, “Here is where we are. If we have to make decision right now, as the developers tell us is necessary, then we must either give in totally to their requests—a B1 rezoning would allow builders to construct at their own discretion—or we go back to the idea of a conditional use permit, which would allow the county, the community and this adjacent landowner some protection. . . which they all may need.”
ED-8 Supervisor W. Bryant Claiborne said, “I have to tell you the truth. I wouldn’t want those big yellow signs staring me in the face every time I walked out the front door either. I can sympathize with this man…”
Ivey repeated his belief that Dollar General owners would not tolerate a conditional use permit because the property would be “worthless” to Dollar General in terms of its future marketability and resale value.
Par 5 argues money top priority
Then Ivey made his final appeal: “Look, all of us know that a new Dollar General in the Cluster Springs area is going to be an economic boon to the community and that blocking the deal is going to cost the area money…”
Claiborne replied, ”Dollar General knows it’s going to make a lot of money in that location as well – that’s why they want to buy this property,” and laughter rippled through the room.
Davis asked Ivey if he believed Dollar General would enter at least into some kind of “gentleman’s agreement,” promising to take the community’s concerns and interests seriously—especially in regard to the façade of the new store.
Ivey replied he could not speak for them.
“I work for Dollar General,” said Ivey, who appeared shaken, “but I am not an employee of Dollar General.”
Supervisors rule in favor of long-term county interests
Pushed to the wall after roughly an hour of debate over this issue, supervisors appeared frustrated and ready, given Ivey’s ultimatums, to take action.
Witt and Davis agreed that while they “welcomed the construction of a new Dollar General in Cluster Springs,” they also believed they had a duty to protect the long-term “strategic interests” of the county, community and local landowners.
Witt asked if there were any supervisors willing to initiate a motion to approve a conditional use permit for the 1.49 acres in question, but he was interrupted by Halifax County Administrator Jim Halasz who noted that if supervisors wished to reconsider a conditional use permit, that fact must be first advertised and more public hearings scheduled.
Halasz added any window of opportunity for advertising that would allow expeditious action on this issue—possibly a February resolution--had passed, and the process might take longer than the potential property buyers wished.
This kind of extended timeline, Witt and Davis noted, was in fact mandated as Halasz outlined, and while they understood the owners of Dollar General might decide to walk away, at this point, they could envision no other course of action.
“In the long run,” said Davis, “this might be best. Eventually this area will get B1 zoning, but this gives us a chance to control the process in a way that protects the county and its residents.”
“If Dollar General is serious and wants to work with us, then this can happen. But an initial motion from this board to approve B1 zoning failed to raise a second, and it is our responsibility to consider what will be of the greatest benefit to the community of Cluster Springs. A conditional use permit gives us time to grow in ways that will do this.”
Ivey and Lynch quickly assembled their maps, schematics and other materials and left the room.