Swannanoa Dollar General construction moves forward; neighbors concerned

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Though construction is well underway on the new Dollar General, neighborhood residents continue to push for limitations to ensure traffic safety.

SWANNANOA - Though construction has begun on a new Dollar General on U.S. 70 in Swannanoa, neighborhood residents remain concerned.

One of their concerns is the location of the vehicle entrance to the store parking lot from the road.

"The Dollar General in Swannanoa has an approved driveway permit that meets NCDOT standards," said Chris Medlin, North Carolina Department of Transportation district engineer, via email. "The standards in this policy are developed for the safe and efficient movement of people and goods on the state highway system."

Jenny Wilds, a resident of Rowland Road whose property sits directly across from the Dollar General, cited multiple concerns, including traffic safety, trucks swinging into her front yard to make the turn into the store's driveway and lights shining through her windows.

Trucks not having enough room to make the turn likely have to drive onto Wilds' property. Already a truck ran over a section of her property, knocking over a 12-inch tall piece of wood bordering the edge of her driveway.

Though initially the Dollar General entrance did not meet the 50 foot minimum turn-off distance from U.S. 70, in March, NCDOT admitted the driveway mistake and had the entrance moved. 

The entrance currently exists in compliance of the 50 foot minimum.

Driveway, traffic concerns

If trucks and other vehicles require more space in the right of way on Rowland Road, Medlin said the developer would be responsible for keeping with NCDOT policy or secure the road improvements from neighboring property owners.

In this case, if more space is needed on the road, the developer may need to cut into Wilds' property. 

Local realtor Matt Barker said the 50 foot minimum is not as safe as it should be. He said the mistake in the plan should have been caught.

"Was that a mistake like, 'Oh we accidentally didn't notice,'" Barker asked. "Or was it a mistake of kind of waving that rule for Dollar General and 'We didn't think the neighbors would catch us but they did?'"

County planning director Nathan Pennington said the planning department "has no authority" to issue driveway permits, which is responsibility of NCDOT. 

"That is solely a state right that is placed upon the NCDOT to administer and enforce," Pennington said. 

However, according to the NCDOT Policy on Street and Driveway Access to North Carolina Highways, building permits are to be withheld until local government and NCDOT reach a consensus regarding the applicant's requirements for driveway access.

Barker sees NCDOT and the planning department as backing themselves into a corner. He said since the plan was approved, if it changed now, Dollar General could file a lawsuit based on following guidelines for a plan which should not have been approved.

The neighbors say the turn onto Rowland Road from U.S. 70 itself poses safety hazards. Engineers of the project measured the turn at a safe speed they determined to be 10 miles per hour, turning out of a 45 mile per hour zone.

"Who slows down to 10 miles per hour on 70," Wilds asked.

Wilds said there have been two fatalities at the intersection since 2014, a dangerous area for residents, Dollar General shoppers and the pickup line for the ArtSpace charter school, which sits on the other side of the store site.

Located in such close proximity to ArtSpace, the Dollar General would also have to work around how it intends to sell alcohol within 500 feet of the school. According to Dollar General's online shop, beer and wine can be purchased in-store.

Kathy Stilwell, another neighborhood resident, said there have already been near-misses due to construction traffic.

"There are going to be accidents here," Stilwell said. "There's no doubt about it."

Responsible for executing the design and construction of the driveway connection to the street, NCDOT approves all connections to the state highway system.

After the location of the driveway was found to not meet NCDOT requirements, the developer submitted a revised site plan that complied with the regulations, according to David Uchiyama with NCDOT communications.

Though moving the driveway farther up Rowland Road from U.S. 70 would still comply with NCDOT policy, Uchiyama said this suggestion from residents would not make sense from an engineering perspective.

"Putting the driveway over there makes absolutely no engineering sense and actually makes it more dangerous for drivers in the area," Uchiyama said. 

More:Swannanoa residents opposed to new Dollar General, cite traffic safety concerns

Demands and appeals

Neighbors to the Dollar General listed three demands: a pause of construction while the location of the driveway is analyzed to ensure safety, a full consideration of moving the driveway directly onto U.S. 70 with engineering studies to prove its impossibility and finally, they ask the developer provide a maximum tree or fence buffer to mitigate impact to the surrounding community. 

Barker said the only required buffer exists at the rear of the store, the only side not bordering a public road. 

Wilds requested the buffer since Rowland Road also serves as the entrance to a residential neighborhood. With the neighborhood in mind, she also asked Dollar General if they could use a smaller sign rather than the large pylon typically employed. 

Though Wilds has yet to hear from the developers about buffering, she said she was told 'no' for the sign.

Neighborhood residents considered an appeal with the county Board of Adjustment but missed the 30 day window after a permit was issued on Dec. 28.

According to Barker, the zoning ordinance never explicitly refers to a 30 day notice. Furthermore, Barker said when he attempted to follow the North Carolina general statutes, a typo sends the reader to the wrong paragraph.

"I'm a realtor. I'm experienced in searching the public access for permits," said Barker, who works for Nest Realty. "There's nothing with that date of Dec. 28 in the permit portal for that site. Where's the constructive notice?"

An appeal would require a $500 fee paid to the county. Barker and Wilds agreed the entire process would likely be more trouble than it's worth, since legal fees would be steep, an appeal could take a while and even if they won, Dollar General could appeal the ruling to a higher court. 

The entire process could cost as much as $15,000, according to Barker.

"As much as we don't like the outcome here, we could not find a legal foothold that said they technically had violated zoning," Barker said.

At this point, with the development well underway, Barker said the county told him the residents of the neighborhood could sue the county, knowing how difficult that could be.

In addition to the outlined demands, the neighbors would like to sit down with the developers, planners and NCDOT to have an honest conversation regarding safety.

"There's still things they can do to enhance the safety here," Barker said. "We'd love to just get Dollar General on their back foot a little bit in a more apologetic mode to the neighbors."

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or emaille@blackmountainnews.com. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.