Plans to build a Dollar General store at the intersection of Routes 152 and 165 in Fallston have drawn protest from members of the community who are concerned that having the retail chain on land zoned for village business would harm the character of the surrounding area.
The store does comply with current regulations for development within village business zones, however, according to county officials, despite claims by opponents that it is not appropriate for zoning districts meant to preserve the rural character of established, historic village communities in Harford County.
“That is not a company that belongs in village business,” resident Christine Medvetz said of Dollar General. “I feel like a company like that belongs along Belair Road in the development envelope, not here.”
Medvetz was among about 25 people who took part in an April rally, organized through the community group Keep Fallston Rural, against the Dollar General plans. Participants gathered at the intersection of Route 152 and Route 165, across the highway from the 1.43-acre parcel slated for the discount store.
The group stood on the grass at the corner near the Savory Deli & Market, one of a number of established businesses around the intersection. The Savory Deli is at the northwest corner, across Route 165 from the Crossroads Station shopping center. A BB&T bank branch is at the southeast corner, across Route 152 from the shopping center, and an Amish Shed Outlet, with gazebos and sheds on display, occupies the southwest corner where Dollar General is expected to be built.
“I’m concerned about an already congested intersection becoming more dangerous,” said resident Katie Gonano.
The busy highway intersection is part of the Upper Crossroads community, one of nine rural villages in Harford County.
“These villages existed long before there was a zoning code and include historic areas dating back to the 1700s,” according to a flyer distributed during the rally. “Let’s preserve these unique areas that capture Harford County’s rural area appeal.”
The zoning designations for parcels around Route 152 and Route 165 vary, according to the county’s interactive online zoning map. The parcel slated for Dollar General, at 2800 Fallston Road, is zoned VB, or village business, and it is adjacent to residential parcels along Scarff Road zoned VR, or village residential.
The same VB zoning covers the BB&T parcel across Route 165, as well as land along the right-hand side of the highway south of it. The houses near the bank branch have VR zoning designations, and much of the land in the surrounding area is zoned for agricultural or rural residential use, according to the map.
It is a different story on the north side of the intersection, though. The Savory Deli and shopping center are both on land zoned B1, or Neighborhood Business District. The B1 is the least intense of the county’s three commercial zoning designations, and it calls for “limited retail and service facilities convenient to residential neighborhoods,” according to the Harford zoning code.
“We have all the services we need,” Beth Scheir, of Keep Fallston Rural, said during the rally.
Village business development
Regulations on business development in VB zones are meant to “preserve and enhance the character and function of long-established rural settlements,” according to the code.
“This district compliments the VR District by providing a mix of business and residential uses at an appropriate scale,” the code continues.
Building a business in the VB zone comes with a number of requirements related to lot size, architectural design, landscaping, buffers and setbacks from the road and the size of signs.
“That type of store is allowed by right,” county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said of the Dollar General.
“However, in the village business zone, there are certain architectural design standards that have to be compatible with character of the surrounding village,” she said, noting that there is an “added layer of design standards” which require approval from the county planning and zoning director.
Developers are seeking a variance to erect a 50-square-foot sign on the property, while the code limits such signs to 10 square feet. County planning and zoning officials opposed the variance, but a zoning hearing examiner approved it March 31 — the local people’s counsel filed an appeal in April, and a hearing date before the Harford County Council sitting as the Board of Appeals must be set, according to Mumby.
A community input meeting for the project was held in December, and it was reviewed by the county’s Development Advisory Committee on Jan. 20. County and state officials are currently reviewing the plans and documents submitted by the developer, such as a traffic impact analysis and stormwater management plan, according to Mumby.
Bel Air attorney Bradley Stover, who has been representing the developers, said that a special exception is not needed to build the Dollar General in a village business zone, as the store comes under the “shoppers’ merchandise” definition in the zoning code and is allowed by right in village business.
“The developer and Dollar General have undertaken significant efforts, at their cost, to design a building that will be in harmony with the surrounding village area,” Stover said in an email, noting that the design is being reviewed by the planning and zoning department.
Shoppers’ merchandise covers a variety of businesses that sell “commodities which tend to be purchased on a comparison basis,” according to the zoning code.
“Establishments commonly referred to as ‘catalog showrooms,’ ‘department stores,’ ‘discount stores,’ ‘variety stores’ and ‘supermarkets’ shall be regulated as ‘shoppers’ merchandise,’” the code states.
Opponents have taken issue with the “shoppers’ merchandise” use, though, noting there have not been any major updates to it since the early 1980s. Scheir described Dollar General as “a box store — it does not fit into that definition” of shoppers’ merchandise.
“It does not meet the planned goals of preserving rural Harford, supporting a healthy Harford or supporting local businesses and farms,” Scheir said.
She acknowledged that the store is “technically” allowed in village business zones, but she noted, both during the rally and in a written statement, that Dollar General would be better suited for B2 and B3 zones, as other Dollar Generals in the county are in those districts.
Rally participant Stephanie Flasch is president of the community group Friends of Harford, which advocates for “responsible land use” in the county. She stressed she was taking part in the rally as a Fallston resident, though, and said a Dollar General in Upper Crossroads is not in line with the HarfordNEXT master land use plan adopted in 2016.
MTBE on their minds
The land slated for Dollar General was previously occupied by an ExxonMobil fuel station, which experienced a leak of the gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether, or MTBE, in 2004. It was one of a number of MTBE leaks found in the Fallston area at the time, which contaminated local drinking water wells.
The leak from the Upper Crossroads station was on the minds of people at the rally, such as Katie Gonano. The mother of three said she knows people in the community who were affected by MTBE leaks.
“I’m worried that if there’s digging over there, [they] might end up opening Pandora’s Box and contaminating water supplies again,” she said.
The investigation of the leak by the Maryland Department of the Environment was mentioned in comments submitted by the Harford County Health Department during the DAC review process. Developers were instructed to contact officials with the MDE’s Oil Control Program for “any additional information or requirements pertaining to this site,” according to a letter from county health official Brian Phipps, which Mumby provided a copy of to The Aegis.
The underground tanks from the gas station, as well as soil contaminated by MTBE, have been removed from the site, plus “monitoring wells have been tested and deemed satisfactory,” according to Stover.
“The developer and Dollar General have designed the proposed use such that site disturbance will be minimal by using existing parking macadam the existing building footprint as much as possible,” the attorney stated.
The MDE ended more than a decade of oversight of cleanup of the gas station site in 2015, once officials determined “there was no longer a threat to human health or the environment associated with the release” of MTBE, according to agency spokesperson Jay Apperson.
“There were not significant oil releases to the soil, but there were vapor releases that were remediated to allow the case to be closed,” he said in an email. “At this time, MDE would not impose any requirements for soil disturbance due to construction.”
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The impacts of another MTBE leak, which happened at a 7-Eleven store along Pleasantville Road in Fallston, are still being monitored, according to Apperson.