How township zoning and citizen opposition stopped a Dollar General in Maple City

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Midwest V, LLC, a Spring Lake, Mich.-based developer working on behalf of Dollar General withdrew its offer last month to purchase three lots from the Flaska family in Maple City, according to the family’s realtor Deb Brown. The offer was withdrawn on Friday, May 10.

The prospect of a small-box, national realtor moving into the tiny Leelanau County community drew swift, near unanimous, opposition from local citizens when the news surfaced in early April. Maple City resident Scott Mills, who lives next to the Flaska property for sale at the corner of County Roads 667 and 616, sounded the alarm and organized the community to pack Kasson Township meetings.

“I see Dollar General’s business as moving into places where there are a couple local grocery stores and they put them out of business,” said Mills at the time. “Dollar General doesn’t sell fresh foods. This would threaten our local stores and pose an existential threat to Gabe’s. Local businesses add value by keeping dollars in our community.”

Brown said Kasson Township zoning laws—rather than citizen opposition—prompted Midwest V to withdraw its offer. Kasson stipulates that a development within its mixed-use commercial core not exceed 16,000 square feet (according to page 42 in its Zoning Ordinance). A Dollar General building, which averages 9,100 square feet, together with 25-30 parking spaces, a wastewater and easement footprint, would have exceeded 16,000 square feet. Brown said Kasson refused to allow the developer to merge the three lots, thereby tripling the allowed size.

The developer had submitted preliminary site plans last December, and again in April, to the township, said Kasson zoning administrator Mike Lanham. No formal application was ever made.

Mills has since reflected on the citizen campaign he quickly organized to pressure township officials to strictly interpret Kasson’s zoning laws and prevent a Dollar General from building in Maple City.

“Kelly and I were the nexus of the organizing, but word really just spread organically outward,” he wrote to the Sun. “We shared the letter to neighbors and the open letter to the board with folks here in Maple City; Barb Schneider (a neighbor) helped canvas and collect signatures; and we sent info out more widely in the county via email. Bonnie Nescot and Tim Barr talked to a lot of people, which was great. Someone posted the letters to the “Overhead in Leelanau County” group on Facebook. Once word was out, emails and phone calls began pouring in. The mere mention of a corporate incursion into the county seemed to be enough to get people engaged.”

“Before the April Kasson Township Board meeting, I gave the supervisor and the Planning Commission chair a heads-up that I’d be speaking at the meeting, and that we were asking folks to attend. In those conversations, I laid out my case for why the ordinance wouldn’t allow such a development on the land in question. At the meeting, the township’s lawyer, Tom Grier, shared a letter in closed session that he had drafted to the Planning Commission apparently advising them to not approve a retail development the size of a Dollar General within the ‘High Density Village’ zoning district. I get the impression his reasons were the same as the ones I presented at the meeting. …”

“Given the overwhelming turnout at the meeting, the seemingly unanimous public objection to a Dollar General in Maple City, the press received, the strength of the ordinance on the matter at hand, and both Tom Grier’s letter and my public comment pointing out the clarity and strength of the ordinance, I think the choice was clear for the board and the Planning Commission. (The developer) no doubt got a sense of this from reading the papers and from their back-and-forth with Mike Lanham, and they walked away. Exactly the outcome we were aiming for. That’s my perspective on how it went down. …”

Dollar Store bid in Lake Ann

Dollar stores—which include Dollar Tree, Family Dollar and Dollar General—are expanding in rural, and often economically depressed, towns throughout the United States. “Small box” dollar stores, typically 9,100 square feet in size, specialize in selling cheap commodities and pre-packaged food that undercut locally-owned grocery stores. Dollar stores work with developers and realtors who refuse to disclose their identity when courting land owners.

A dollar store suitor recently tried to acquire land to open a location in Lake Ann.

That prompted Almira Township to institute a 60-day moratorium at a special meeting on April 17 on any commercial development to give the Planning Commission the opportunity to review its zoning ordinance and potentially limit the size of commercial development in the municipality, which includes Lake Ann. (The moratorium will end in mid-June.)

“We don’t want to discourage growth in the township, but we want it to be growth the township wants, as represented by our constituents,” said board member Matt Therrien, who also owns Lake Ann Brewing Company. Therrien emphasized that local zoning is what decides what development is and is not allowed, not community activism.

Therrien was contacted earlier this spring by a downstate realtor with a Lansing-area phone number who has a PO Box in Frankfort and is a member of the Benzie County Chamber of Commerce. She inquired about a commercially-zoned piece of land he owns about half a mile from downtown. Therrien received a high offer for the land but was wary of selling to an anonymous corporation that refused to disclose its identity.

Therrien returned the realtor’s call and said “if this is a Dollar General or Family Dollar, we’re not interested in selling.” Therrien recalled that a 10-second pause ensued and she said “I’ll let the buyers know.” Two hours later he received a text stating that “the buyers find these terms unusual and wish to withdraw their offer.”

The same realtor later inadvertently called Therrien’s cell phone number while pursuing other Lake Ann residents about their commercial properties.

“Without knowing who I’m selling to, I’d have to deem it a good fit for my town before I’d get on board,” Therrien told the Sun. “It would otherwise reflect poorly on me, and my beer might not taste as good as before, if you know what I’m saying.”

John Nuske, who owns Lake Ann Grocery, was also alarmed to hear of a dollar store’s interest. 

“Yes, Dollar General would provide competition for my business,” he said. “But all they do is add some convenience stuff at convenient hours. They might be able to beat me at the price of milk and eggs, but all they’ll have is cheap (stuff) made in China.”

Dollar Stores here, there, everywhere

Dollar General currently has locations in Frankfort, Traverse City, Grawn, Interlochen, Kingsley, Buckley and Kalkaska. Dozens are strewn across northwest lower Michigan. As of July 2018, Dollar General operated 15,000 stores across the 48 contiguous United States. They are now more numerous than McDonald’s restaurants.

Maple City business owners were unhappy to learn that a dollar store was targeting their village. 

“It doesn’t fit the landscape of our small, close-knit community,” said Mary MacDonald, who owns Pegtown Station, a popular restaurant a block away. “We need to band together and keep our eye on this so we don’t let things slide through.”

“I personally wouldn’t shop there. I’d rather go to Gabe’s or Bunting’s (nearby Cedar) or Anderson’s (in Glen Arbor). If I need milk I’ll walk across the street to Gabe’s. We have a great relationship with them.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Kathy Gabourie, who has owned Gabe’s Country Market together with her husband Mike for 34 years. “Naturally it would affect our business. This community is too small for it.”

Dollar General landed a foothold next to the gateway arch just outside of Frankfort in 2016 after securing approval from Crystal Lake Township—despite heated opposition from within the village of Frankfort. 

“There are some people who were upset. A lot of them regularly came to our meetings,” Amy Ferris, supervisor for Crystal Lake Township, told the Benzie County Record Patriot in April 2016. She was referencing the construction of a Dollar General very close to the iconic Gateway Arch atop the hill going out of the City of Frankfort. But there was nothing in the township’s ordinances that would prevent such a development.

Nearly a decade ago, Benzie County went from a county-wide zoning model to one in which each township, village, and city would administer its own zoning and planning. While the city’s zoning would have required the construction of a two-story building, the rules in Crystal Lake Township—just a few hundred yards from the city line—were looser, and thus the developers found it more appealing, reported the Betsie Current.

Meanwhile, a 2015 bid to acquire land and open a dollar store on M-22 north of Empire failed when residents revolted, 70 residents signed a petition in opposition, and the village council voted unanimously against changing zoning laws that would have allowed the development.

“My fear about such an enterprise in this village is that they are not flexible with their 9,100-square-foot store (size),” resident Mary Sharry told the Leelanau Enterprise. “Another concern is that if such a business comes into an area and doesn’t succeed, they have no compunction about closing up their medium-size box store. They simply pull out of town and leave a structure there, which could become a derelict building over time. Empire sure doesn’t need more of that.”

What doesMaple City need?

Deb Brown, a broker for Home Port Network, said the Flaskas—whose family has lived in Maple City for decades—were disappointed the offer was withdrawn.

“They thought it would have been good for the community,” she told the Glen Arbor Sun. “People could buy things without having to drive all the way to Traverse City.”

“The Kasson Zoning ordinance calls for a commercial corridor downtown, the Leelanau County Master Plan calls for commercial growth within the current towns to avoid commercial sprawl along the feeder highways,” Brown followed in a written statement. “The lots owned by the Flaska family are commercially zoned and they feel more retail is needed in downtown Maple City to help keep the city viable and energized.”

With Dollar General now out of the picture, but with the Flaskas’ land still for sale, Brown opined that the kind of “mom and pop” store allowed in Kasson’s zoning regulations might not be viable in Maple City.

“While the zoning for small-footprint stores is felt to keep a form of ‘character’ and small-town feel, they are not economically feasible,” she wrote. “What kind of products would have to be sold in a 2,000-4000 square-foot store to bring in enough income to pay for the new building, taxes, stock and wages? These are tough questions for a potential buyer of any small-town commercial business. When a new retail buyer has researched this as a viable possibility, they should be given the chance to work out a plan within that community that would prove mutually beneficial.”

Community response

After learning of the withdrawal at a Kasson Township board meeting in early May, Scott Mills emailed the fellow citizens who had signed an open letter opposed to Dollar General the previous month. His words adopted the form of a victory letter for his campaign.

“There will be no Dollar General in our town! Not on this particular land at least …”

“As I look out the window now, the pink flags marking the planned soil borings that were never done swish idly in the breeze. An Oriole sings from the top of a White Pine. …”

“There’s no way to know how this would have unfolded had we not come together as a community and responded with a firm and well-reasoned no,but the situation was certainly resolved exactly how we asked that it be. And swiftly too. I suspect that our unified response had a decisive effect.…”

But Mills also predicted that more northern Michigan communities will face the same existential question when Dollar General comes knocking on their door.

“The next step will be to watch out for where [Dollar General] tries to build next,” he wrote in his open letter. “There’s no reason to think we’ve scared them away from Leelanau County yet, but if we respond to future attempts the way we just did, the way the folks in Empire responded a few years back, [the developer] will run out of ways in.”

“If you live in another township, let your board and Planning Commission know to be vigilant. Call up your zoning administrator and ask if they’ve received any such inquiries. Talk to folks who own commercial parcels and let them know that high offers out of the blue from anonymous parties are a cause for suspicion. Read your zoning ordinance and propose that it be strengthened.”