Commissioners vote down small box store moratorium (but not lightly)

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Holmes County Commissioners voted down a moratorium that would have delayed the addition of new and prevent the expansion of existing small box discount stores in a special session Jan. 23.

The moratorium stated its purpose was to study the effects of such stores on the health, safety and welfare of residents and businesses and was set to expire March 20. The moratorium was drafted in response to multiple issues created around an incoming Family Dollar that has both opposition and support.

“The Holmes County Development Commission (HCDC) is a non-profit organization established to retain and expand existing businesses, create opportunities for new business recruitment and spur community development with the purpose of improving the standard of living for all residents,” HCDC Executive Director Joe Rone read from a prepared statement.

Rone was first to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting and went on to say that the full board was in opposition to the moratorium.

“Reactive, sweeping legislation such as this is ineffective and expensive to taxpayers. While we fully support a community’s desire to reform its land use regulations to reflect their residents’ best interests, we cannot agree with impeding a property owner’s legal rights,” Rone said.

Rone said the moratorium would send the wrong message and hurt the county’s reputation as a place where growth and progress are currently happening.

As the dollar store development has been on county and town council agendas, the consensus is that no one is trying to impede on the rights of Daryl and Angela Dockery, who sold the dollar store parcel to Perman Engineering, to sell their property to whomever they choose. The conflict has mostly swirled around developer transparency, whether a dollar store is the forward movement the town needs, and if it would hurt existing businesses.

Angela Dockery took the podium to say the moratorium is hurting the value of commercial property they own and that the developers have been “bad mouthed, strong armed, (and) bullied” since they started trying to do business in the county.

While the Family Dollar development is occurring within the Ponce de Leon city limits and the town council initially unanimously voted against the addition of another dollar store, county commissioners have gotten entangled with the development as the town has followed the county’s comprehensive plan and commissioners retroactively approved the initial lot split.

The county responded to mounting opposition of the development by proposing a moratorium that would buy the town more time to react as the town maintains the developer, Perman Engineering, never formally approached them with a plan or applied for the proper licensing after the lot was purchased and already being cleared.

Dockery submitted a public records request last week for development orders, especially for small box stores, that the county has recently received and brought the commissioners’ attention to a pre-development order for a Dollar General store to be located in the community of Prosperity on a parcel of land owned by Ponce de Leon Mayor Shane Busby.

Busby was prepared to respond to what transpired with the timing of the sale and how he still stands in opposition to the proposed Family Dollar in PDL. Busby said a real estate agent contacted him Nov. 9 about his parcel that was not listed for sale, and his family made the decision to enter into an agreement Dec. 7 to sell the parcel to a developer. To date, the buyer has not yet paid Busby and is still surveying the property.

“Nowhere in the contract does it state what the property was going to be developed as,” Busby said. “... others in the community, including Mrs. Dockery and people that contacted me, actually knew what was going to be developed on my property before I did. So any accusations against me are strictly unfounded.”

Commissioner Clint Erickson then asked Busby to reiterate whether he was 100 percent against a dollar store coming to Ponce de Leon.

“Yes, because we already have one,” Busby said, adding that the dollar store proposed for his land is located about 10 miles away. “I represent my town. I represent the voice of the people that elected me, so when they come as a majority and speak out against, that’s where my backing is.”

Other issues raised in opposition to a dollar store is that the town has limited commercial property available to begin with and that any development would be limited by the town’s water and sewer capacity.

George Robertson, PDL town council chairman and HCDC secretary, pointed out how the large travel plaza Busy Bee had considered PDL before the owners decided to develop just off Interstate 10 in Bonifay.

“Frankly, it’s very difficult to get businesses located in our area anywhere on the west side (of the county) especially restaurants, stores and retail-type establishments because we are very limited on water and sewer. Dollar stores don’t take up anything except a bathroom for the employees so it’s not a problem.”

Robertson said the town has applied for grant funding to expand its capacity and currently has less than 1,000 acres of prime real estate to develop. He also pointed out that the town and possibly the county could be held liable legally and on the hook to reimburse property owners for impeding their rights or causing lost income.

Robertson went on to say he didn’t believe a new dollar store would be competition for Wayne’s Grocery and would alleviate the struggle the existing Dollar General faces in keeping up with the demand.

Robertson, who said he doesn’t really like dollar stores, said it would be better for the town and the county to accept the tax revenue the store would bring.

District 1 Commissioner Jeff Good, where PDL is located, said he didn’t know the full ramifications of the moratorium when the commission drafted it. In light of potential legal pitfalls, Good changed his mind on the moratorium.

“With all this new information coming out with the county, I’m just going to go ahead and say that if a development order comes to me for that box store and all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed and it’s correct, I will support it.”

Good added that no one wants to hurt Wayne’s Grocery and that they do a lot for the community. He noted the entire debacle has torn the county commission and town council apart at moments when board members have changed their vote in light of new information.

“Everybody here is upset at each other. There’s property owners upset; there’s businesses upset and boards upset,” Good said. “I hope we can all come together and get back to doing what’s best for Holmes County.”

District 2 Commissioner Brandon Newsom echoed Good in saying a lot of people are for and against the store. He reiterated that the county’s comprehensive plan needs to be updated and that the proposed moratorium was to allow the town more time to vote the way they would ultimately choose in allowing the new Family Dollar.

Newsom said he was unaware of the proposed Dollar General in Prosperity that sits in his district but would support it if that is what residents want.

Wayne Mayo, owner of Wayne’s Grocery, said he did not say anything publicly when Dollar General opened years ago in PDL but that his business did have to adjust and this time is different. He lambasted the commissioners for “supporting a corporation over people that support you guys.”

Erickson asked County Attorney Nate Nolin his opinion on the moratorium one last time before commissioners voted.

“At this point in time if there’s going to be a contest to it, it sounds like there will be a suit so if you’re willing to go down that road,” Nolin said in reference to the moratorium or denial of the development. “It opens the county up to a lawsuit, and that’s never a good thing.”

Good made the motion to stop the second public hearing for the moratorium that was scheduled for Feb. 9. Erickson seconded the motion. Erickson, Good and Newsom voted the moratorium down. District 4 Commissioner Earl Stafford was absent from the meeting due to health reasons.

District 3 Commissioner Phillip Music cast the lone vote against striking down the moratorium saying that it’s not a huge loss for the corporations.

“They got thousands of them (stores), but I can’t see taking anything from him in that small of a county. To me, it’s not that important. To him (Wayne Mayo), that’s his living so that’s the way I feel about it,” Music said.

Holmes County Commission, dollar store, Dockery, HCDC

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