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Morgan County, WV malcontents continue to fight proposed Dollar General

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A group of Morgan County residents has upped the ante in its battle against a Dollar General discount store to be built near Berkeley Springs.

Russell Mokhiber, who lives near the site of the proposed Dollar General at the intersection of U.S. 522 and Oakland Road near Cacapon State Park, said local residents have begun a postcard campaign to protest construction of the store in their rural community. Residents are targeting Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos with postcards expressing their displeasure with the idea, Mokhiber said.

“Dear Todd Vasos,” the notes read. “As you know, Dollar General wants to drop another one of its stores in our rural neighborhood here in southern Morgan County, West Virginia. We don’t want it here.”

Mokhiber, a 25-year resident of the area, said 500 postcards are being sent to Vasos.

“We’re seeing this around the country,” Mokhiber said in a telephone interview. “They’re expanding rapidly. It looks like they’re moving out of business areas into residential areas.”

Executives for Dollar General are standing by the proposed site.

“We use a very sound and tested process to evaluate a potential site and based on that analysis, we believe this is a suitable site for a Dollar General store,” said Dollar General Spokesman Dan MacDonald.

Dollar General currently operates 11,500 stores in 40 states.

Opinions about the proposed location of the store have been mixed in Morgan County. 

Two different petitions circulated simultaneously in the county as plans were discussed, one in favor of the store and the other against it. Mokhiber said about 400 people signed a petition opposing the location. Discussion started in January 2015 with a community meeting.

Residents opposed to the Dollar General went to Morgan County Circuit Court after the Morgan County Planning Commission approved plans for the store. Residents argued the planning commission broke its own rules in approving the store, and violated residents’ due process rights.

In March, Morgan County Economic Development Authority member Jerry Berman publicly voiced his opposition to the store’s proposed location — drawing the ire of County Commissioner Bob Ford who said at the time the protest and Berman’s role in it had made the county a laughingstock and called for Berman to resign.

But Berman, who practiced law for 35 years, including a 10-year stint as the American Civil Liberties Union’s chief legislative counsel and founder and director of ACLU Projects on Privacy and Information Technology, said he has no intention of going quietly.

“When someone says you’re going to be removed because you exercised your free speech right, I say they’re not going to do that,” he said. “I’m not going to let it happen that easily.

“I told him, we had a polite conversation the other day, that if he can get the votes to throw me off for me speaking my own opinion ... he’ll have a lawsuit on his hands. Not his hands, the county commission’s. I just don’t think government can act that way.”

But Ford had said he thought it was inappropriate for Berman or any other member of the EDA to be critical of a development opportunity, particularly when it’s so badly needed in the county.

“You have to be here in Morgan County to understand it,” Ford said. “We’ve had a $17 million drop in our Class III properties, commercial and industrial properties. If you convert that over to tax money, that’s a lot of tax revenue.”

Ford said the EDA is tasked with enhancing the county’s tax base and creating jobs, “not to pick and choose what companies you want to locate in our county or where you want them to locate.”

“As long as they meet the permitting requirements, you should be supporting (development opportunities),” he wrote in a three-page statement which he read at a recent planning commission meeting.

In October, Morgan County Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes ruled in favor of the Planning Commission. That decision has since been appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Mokhiber said there already are two Dollar General stores and a Family Dollar in Morgan County, and there is a Dollar General within about 10 miles of the new store. Like Walmart, he said it appears Dollar General’s business model is to build a store every few miles.

MacDonald said Dollar General followed proper procedures in developing the site. 

“We believe our developer has carefully followed the process and followed all guidelines set forth by the local jurisdiction in developing and pursuing the required entitlements for this store location,” he said. “Both in West Virginia and in all of the communities Dollar General operates in, we are respectful of community concerns and thoughtful in store design to comply with local building codes.

“In addition, our small store format will have minimal impact on local traffic patterns and allows us to be very close to our consumers to maximize their time and convenience,” MacDonald said.

Mokhiber said residents aren’t necessarily opposed to Dollar General building another store in their area. They’re opposed to Dollar General building another store at this particular location.

“There’s a better location just a mile away, in a business park,” he said. He said the proposed store would be across the road from a church and a state park, a combination he believes is a bad idea.

“This is beautiful country here in West Virginia, and this (store) is going to mess it up,” Mokhiber said. “Put the businesses where the businesses belong — in a business park.”

This story first appeared in the print edition of The State Journal. Click HERE to subscribe.

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