Responding to a torrent of objections from neighbors, the county commission Tuesday morning rejected a change in zoning that would have enabled a Dollar General to go up just east of Lanark Village.
By a 4-1 vote, with Chair Noah Lockley firmly opposed, the commissioners declined to rezone about six acres of land, just east of the long-shuttered Putnal Lanark Station, from single family residential to commercial.
With his motion to deny the zoning change, seconded by William Massey, Bert Boldt said enabling the change would fly in the face of the county’s comprehensive plan as well as the will of the people.
“We have many unknowns there,” he said. “We have a Franklin County comp plan, a standard of practice that has been promulgated over the years. Breaching that document cascades more unknowns.
“Also, the will of the people is known,” Boldt said. “My people, the will of the people, says no, no, no, absolutely no.”
Commissioner Smokey Parrish echoed his colleague’s support of the neighbors’ views. “The people have spoken, they don’t want it and I have to go with the will of the people,” he said. “I don’t fully understand why you don’t want a dollar store; if I lived there I would probably want it.”
The vote followed the completion of the lengthy public hearing that began two weeks ago, that was tabled by commissioners until Tuesday.
Many of the neighbors who spoke out Feb. 18 were on hand to reiterate their objections, along with a handful of new ones, each also opposed.
Representing applicants Timothy and Christina Saunders, Walton County attorney Mark Davis, land use planner Allara Mills Gutcher, and Chris West, general counsel at Teramore Development, LLC, out of Thomasville, Georgia, summarized the arguments each had made earlier.
“I live in a county where the population has tripled,” said Davis. “A land development code and comp plan is not set in stone; in Walton County it’s pretty restrictive.”
He said the law allowed “a method, means and standard” for making changes. “The testimony is that our application meets all the methods, means and criteria,” Davis said. “You have to find ‘just cause.’ I don’t like it, or it might not be popular, is not just cause.
“These codes are not meant to be set in stone, and chiseled,” he said. “The solution is not to deny applications; the solution is to change your code.”
Parrish bristled at Davis’ suggestion that commissioners did not have the freedom to reject the zoning change.
“You’re entitled to come back and ask for a change in zoning classification,” Parrish said. “You’re not guaranteed that. What you are guaranteed it what you had when you bought the property.”
Gutcher stressed the proposed site is adjacent to a commercially designated future land use parcel, meaning the land where the former Putnal Lanark Station used to operate before it shut down several decades ago.
The developers certainly did not have an ally in James B. Putnal, who has inherited that property, and who said his grandfather would not have approved of the change.
“I have no intent to change it either,” Putnal said. “This is just an open door (for future development). Everybody’s against it; listen to what the people have to say.”
Gutcher said the Dollar Store would be compatible with the commercial property alongside it, and that it can be further made to fit in through bigger buffers, setbacks and other accommodations.
“This is not an intense ‘big box’ development,” she said, noting that such dollar stores are commonly located within a residential area, and that its presence would enhance pedestrian and bicycle activity.
Mike McCload and Mark Hopkins opened public comments by reiterating their positions that neighbors have the right to object to commercial development they believe would ruin the quiet, pristine atmosphere of the surroundings where they reside.
“They would never imagine a dollar store or any store right across the street from their land. They have the right to object,” said McCload.
“They (the Dollar General) don’t have a right to do if it interferes with people’s lands,” said Hopkins. “This will lead to a strip mall, and will change the complexion of the entire area. This will lead to a redefinition of St. James and Lanark.
“This prostitutes the planning process,” he said. “The county’s vision does not envision an urban center east of Lanark. Please support your existing development plan and your staff.”
Elizabeth Baldwin, whose property abuts the proposed site, said Dollar General stores are typically put in low-income neighborhoods, and will offer only four full-time positions, without benefits.
“The closer to residential it is, the more impact it has,” she said. “I don’t want Lanark to end up like Crawfordville; they didn’t have a vision or a plan.
“Let’s make a concerted effort to preserve what we have,” Baldwin said. “We can protect what we have and prepare for the future as well.”
Deborah Scanlon said the area in question is “absolutely beautiful. I noticed right across the street a sign put in by the state, a sign with a bear on it. I see eagles and the ospreys.”
She said she had recently encountered an accident nearby involving a bonneted bat, the largest and most endangered bat species in the state.
“Isn’t that where we get corona from?” said Lockley.
“Didn’t it come out of China, where the dollar store gets its merchandise from?” replied Scanlon.
Herbert Napore, who has lived in Franklin County for 29 years, 20 in Lanark, said he and his wife had chosen Lanark because of its residential atmosphere.
“They’re trying to hodgepodge zoning, to put a dollar store in. It stinks,” he said, adding that “I could not find one person for it” at either the Legion Post or Chillas Hall.
Bill Mickler, who lives across the street from the proposed change, said “we found our little piece of heaven right there at Gulf Terrace. You can’t measure or capture all the wildlife we see. We don’t know what this property is going to look like.”
Wanda Rose stressed that visitors “come because of the natural beauty. There are plenty of other places with noise and entertainment.
“I’m not against growth but I want a planned, controlled growth,” she said. “Growth that fits into a surrounding area that doesn’t affect the area we live in.”
Joan Matey told commissioners the Dollar General company has said publicly about their aggressive expansion plans. ‘
“Dollar General was going to push their profile really hard, like the old 7-Elevens used to be,” she said. “I’m even questioning their business ideas. I’m more for the SummerCamp idea, to do their shopping down there.”
The neighbors continued their opposition, with Debbie Wharton telling commissioners “we want to have the pristine dark night skies. When I drive by Crawfordville, I look at it and think what could have been. I don’t believe another mushroom popping up called Dollar General is what we need.”
Harold Arnold said he’s been in the area for 35 years and “we’ve done without the dollar store that long. I don’t like the idea of having one that close.
“I’d like to be able to leave this property to my children. I think it’s going to cause a big problem out there as far as looks go and the environment. This does really upset me,” he said.
Hugh Bailey reminded commissioners of the neighbors’ strength. “All these people have a voice,” he said. “These people have one thing - they vote. They vote.”
West closed the developers’ presentation by telling commissioners that studies have shown commercial development has no effect on residential property values, and vice versa.
“The rights of the majority don’t always trump the rights of the minority,” he said.