Dollar General is looking at possibly opening a new store at a commercial center that’s under construction at Parrotts Ferry and Union Hill roads near the intersection known as the Pedro Wye between Sonora and Columbia, the developer and national discount retailer confirmed on Friday.

The news caught some who live in Columbia by surprise after residents of the historic Gold Rush town banded together and successfully fended off Dollar General’s previous attempt in 2015 to build a store at Parrotts Ferry Road and Howser Lane, about a mile from the newly proposed location at the Stone Mill Center development.

“We are currently in a due diligence phase for a new store on Parrotts Ferry Road, which means we’re interested in adding a new location to serve Tuolumne County, but have not committed to doing so quite yet,” Katie Ellison, of the Dollar General Corporation said in an email.

Ellison said they currently anticipate making a final decision on the project as early as this summer.

A permit issued on Feb. 22 by the Tuolumne County Community Development Department for the first of three buildings that are planned at the commercial center lists Dollar General as the project and RC Equities, a limited liability company that owns the property, as the client.

Kim Baker, of Columbia, pulled the permit and posted photos online Thursday after hearing rumors that a building currently under construction at the center was going to be occupied by a Dollar General.

“There’s always a lot of rumors in a small town, but nobody seemed to have any factual information,” she explained in a phone interview on Friday. “When I saw the building was actually going up, I had a few minutes and asked if I could see the building permits.”

A site development permit for the Stone Mill Center was approved by the county Board of Supervisors in 2017 allowing for the construction of three buildings totaling about 16,000 square feet on the 2-acre commercially zoned property.

Quincy Yaley, director of the county Community Development Department that issues building permits, said she did not know that Dollar General was listed in the permit application until Thursday because it had been approved by someone else in her department.

Yaley said the county does not discriminate against which types of businesses would go into the center as long as it meets all of the zoning requirements and conditions of the developer’s permit, which the proposed Dollar General does.

“As long as you fulfill the application and the application requirements, there is no discretionary review beyond what this project went through in 2017,” she said. “That’s across the county, not something that’s unique to this piece of property.”

There is also no opportunity for citizens to appeal the approval of the building permits or the selection of Dollar General as a tenant if that happens, Yaley said.

The Stone Mill Center project itself faced a number of hurdles to get through the approval process due to opposition from some in the public, in addition to a subsequent lawsuit filed by a group called Citizens for Responsible Growth that was ultimately tossed out a year later by a Tuolumne County Superior Court judge who found a lack of merit.

Gary Simning, the developer behind the Stone Mill Center and RC Equities, LLC, was also previously sued by the same group over a proposed 80-unit apartment complex on property across the street and decided to scrap that project.

Simning said emphatically prior to the center’s approval in 2017 that Dollar General would not be considered as a tenant following the uproar caused by the company’s previous proposal two years earlier, but he said in a phone interview on Friday that changed after the lawsuit cost him more than $100,000 in legal fees.

“It was a frivolous lawsuit that did nothing but cost the potential for a medical clinic to go in there and waste time and money,” he said. “We’re going through the process and executing on the plan. Anything we put in there is a legal, authorized use.”

Adventist Health Sonora’s former president had signed a letter indicating interest in opening a prompt care clinic at the center, which supporters of the project touted at public meetings during the approval process, but Simning said the delay caused by the lawsuit and change in management at the hospital led to them backing out.

Simning said he’s still talking with other health care providers about opening a clinic at one of the center’s other two buildings after the one that could potentially be occupied is completed, which he hopes will happen by September.

Another business Simning is hoping to attract is a grocery store or other type of business in the food industry to serve people and students at Columbia College who live in the area. He offered Trader Joe’s 10 years rent free to open a store at the center, but he said the company declined because the county’s population is too small.

“You work with the people ultimately on any of these projects who have the money and wherewithal, that’s it,” he said. “If I could get local members of the community to have their business there, we would do it. We have a sign up there and are soliciting tenants.”

Simning also expressed frustration with the pushback he’s received on projects over the years that he believes are sorely needed to help boost the area’s flagging economy and provide additional property and sales tax revenues for the county’s coffers to prevent further cuts to public services like libraries.

However, for residents like Baker who opposed Dollar General’s previous attempt to open a store in the area, the prospect of one opening at the center feels somewhat like a slap in the face. 

“It’s easy to dismiss this as a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue, but the historic town of Columbia represents a tremendous public investment over the past century almost, and its key to the tourism industry here,” she said. “When the Dollar General was previously proposed, so many people recognized the importance of preserving the historic corridor and its historic integrity.

“Republicans, Democrats, hundreds of people came out and made it clear they valued the historic nature of the town and the small nature of the town and didn’t want a big-box store, especially on the historic corridor.”

Ellison responded when asked why the company views the particular area as a prime location for a store despite the opposition it previously received from many in the community it views each new store as representing “positive economic growth for the communities we proudly serve through the creation of local jobs and opportunities for employee development and career advancement.”

The company also donates money through its Dollar General Literacy Foundation to education initiatives by schools, libraries and nonprofit organizations within a 15-mile radius of each store, Ellison said.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 768-5175.