Whether they like it or not, Lake Don Pedro residents will have a new place to get groceries and other goods in the near future.
The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 to overturn the planning commission’s November decision to deny a site-development permit for the construction of a 9,100 square-foot Dollar General at Las Palmas Way and Highway 132.
District 4 Supervisor John Gray, who represents Lake Don Pedro and other south county communities, was not at the meeting.
Gray has recused himself from all recent discussions related to Dollar General because his partner represents someone who owns property in Groveland that the same developer is interested in purchasing.
In response to some opponents who lectured the board that their “responsibility is to the will of the people,” District 5 Karl Rodefer explained this was a situation in which the law trumped their desire to not have a Dollar General in their community.
“It’s our job to understand the will of the people and respect the will of the people, but it’s our job to follow the law,” Rodefer said. “When the will of the people butts up against the law, we have no choice but to follow the law.”
District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt said property rights were at the heart of the issue.
Roughly 200 people attended the public hearing held Tuesday night in the Don Pedro High School Gym. It was about the same number who went to the previous hearing in November, but the number of people in favor of the project seemed to have grown.
Cross Development, based in Texas, has wanted to build a 9,100-square-foot store for Dollar General at Las Palmas Way and Highway 132 in the Lake Don Pedro subdivision. The company submitted an application for the project to the Tuolumne County Community Resources Agency in December 2015.
The same company was behind a proposal to build a store in Columbia that was struck down by the board upon appeal one year ago.
The newest proposal has stirred debate in the community because the store would be located next door to the Don Pedro Market, a locally owned business that has been in operation for more than 30 years.
Thirty people at Tuesday’s hearing spoke in favor of the project, while 45 were opposed. Seven voiced positive comments at the November meeting compared to more than 20 who were against granting permits for the store’s construction.
About 25 people immediately lined up behind the podium when it was the opposition’s turn to share their comments.
Many people were wearing ballcaps with the Dollar General logo crossed out in opposition to the store. They also had pins and signs with the same image.
However, there was noticeably louder applause each time someone spoke in favor of the project during the first part of the meeting.
Some supporters argued that there aren’t enough businesses to provide services in the community and hoped the Dollar General would spark a change. Others also said they have to drive long distances, sometimes up to an hour away, to get products not available at the Don Pedro Market.
More than 200 people signed an online petition in favor of the project created by a citizens group called Friends Embracing Don Pedro’s Future. About 1,000 people signed a petition against the store.
Peter Schimmelfennig, one of the group’s members, reiterated his belief that the competition between the two businesses would be better for consumers.
“Dollar General sells little more than groceries and clothing, Don Pedro (Market) has so many other products,” he said. “It would be unreasonable to think they would close up shop because a competitor moves in.”
Jeanne Oden said she’s lived in Lake Don Pedro for more than 20 years and believes the area has a fear of competition that’s stagnating economic growth.
Oden also mentioned an economic impact report prepared for Cross Development that said the estimated demand in the Don Pedro area for goods sold by Dollar General was about $20 million, much of which is being spent at stores outside of the county.
“I was really taken aback to find out how much money was leaking out of this community due to the lack of resources,” Oden said. “I’d much rather spend it here so the money can come back to help Tuolumne County.”
Those who spoke against the project voiced similar complaints as the last meeting before the planning commission.
Many said they had read news stories about Dollar Generals getting robbed in other places, and they were worried the same would happen in Lake Don Pedro.
A number of people talked about how they specifically moved to Lake Don Pedro to get away from the types of corporate box stores typically seen in more urban areas, while others who have lived in the area their whole lives were worried about the national retailer squeezing out local businesses.
Opponents said economic development would be further hampered if the Don Pedro Market went out of business, as it’s the only gas station for miles.
“The result will not be economic development, it will be economic displacement,” said Jared Lawson, 36, who was born and raised in Lake Don Pedro. “The worst case scenario is having an empty warehouse in five years and an empty market with no fuel for this community.”
George Harper, a Madera-based attorney who represents Don Pedro Market owner Jimmy Aljamili, said the longtime store “will almost certainly go out of business” if Dollar General is allowed to move in next door.
Harper said the Dollar General should be denied because it doesn’t comply with provisions in the Tuolumne County General Plan that are intended to protect community identity, adding that he believes the store would be out of proportion for a community of under 3,000 full-time residents.
“This extremely small community is not ready, or able to, accommodate growth,” Harper said. “If the residents wanted to live with strip malls or box stores, they would have moved to Jamestown or Sonora.”
Joe Dell, of Cross Development, said he couldn’t pinpoint a date yet for when construction on the store would begin.
Dell said he first has to meet with county staff to work on redesigning parts of the building as requested by the board. Before he does that, however, he has to wait for a 32-day period in which opponents could file a lawsuit to block the project.