Safety concerns, including about students crossing a busy roadway, played a large role in Wayne County’s commissioners denying a zoning request that would allow a retail store near the Northeastern schools complex.

The commissioners voted 3-0 against rezoning 2 acres on the northwest corner of U.S. 27 and Williams Road south of Fountain City as community business district. Not only would a general retail store, which is presumed to be a Dollar General, increase traffic, but vehicles would turn left from the two-lane highway. Commissioners also envisioned school children crossing the highway between speeding vehicles.

“I think part of our responsibilities as commissioners is public safety, and this really crosses into that public safety issue,” Commissioner Brad Dwenger said, calling the traffic situation “waiting for disaster” and noting he’d hate to see a child injured or killed.

Commissioner Mary Anne Butters said she went to the area and found traffic speeding past faster than the posted 55 miles per hour. She noted there were no sidewalks along the highway for pedestrians.

“Without sidewalks on the west side of U.S. 27, it would, I think, imperil foot traffic that would come on that U.S. highway,” Butters said.

The commissioners’ vote followed the Wayne County Advisory Plan Commission’s recommendation to deny the zoning request. During their May 18 meeting, plan commission members voted 5-0 to recommend commissioners deny the zoning request.

Dan Hollenberg, chair of the plan commission, said the plan commission was concerned that the retail location would not be near other retail establishments, the increased U.S. 27 traffic and the foot traffic.

Commissioners indicated the safety concerns trumped the rights of property owners. 

“Generally speaking, I support property rights, but I think the zoning issues take precedence,” Commissioner Jeff Plasterer said.

He added that it doesn’t make sense to rezone that 2-acre plot to a use inconsistent with surrounding land. 

Commissioners also agreed that developers would be better served seeking a variance of use from the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals. A rezone stays with the land and would allow any acceptable community business district use in the future, while a zoning variance of use applies only to a specific project and carries conditions implemented by the BZA.

Laura Miller, the county’s planning and zoning head, said the developers, who did not attend the commissioners’ public hearing, were aware of the BZA path, but had chosen to request the rezone. There was no indication given whether there would be a variance-of-use request.

Still, there’s no guarantee of success through that path.

Jack Baker said he was first approached in 2016 to sell 2 acres of his 9.238-acre parcel. He told commissioners that the developers told him they had searched for a location in Fountain City. Baker said the store would benefit parents leaving Northeastern schools who drive east or west to get home, rather than north to Fountain City or south toward Richmond.

“I see that being a good thing for the parents of the school system,” he said.

John Martin, who owns neighboring land, expressed traffic and drainage concerns. He said that if business zoning occurs, then the entire rural area might as well be zoned for business.

“Either you make it a commercial area or leave it a farming area,” Martin said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.