WILMINGTON — Wilmington City Council adopted the city’s new land development code (LDC) last Tuesday without regulations specific to Dollar General and similar discount stores as originally planned.
Early drafts of the LDC included a proposed section outlining regulations for incoming discount variety stores. One of the most significant changes would have banned the use in food deserts, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, in the months before the LDC went up for approval, that language was stricken from the draft because “there appeared to be no consensus on Council concerning those requirements,” a city spokesperson explained in an email.
Larger cities in the U.S., such as Kansas City and New Orleans, have tightened zoning rules to limit small-box stores. The strategy is intended to entice full-service grocers to build in areas lacking fresh produce and healthy foods.
Planning staff has explained through research on the impacts of Dollar General-type stores, they found full grocers tend to avoid locations near them since products grocers typically sell at high margins are sold cheaper in discount stores. The competition often deters grocers from coming into food deserts –– of which, there are eight in New Hanover County –– and making fresh produce accessible to neighbors. (Dollar General’s urban brand DGX, located in River Place, is an exception that carries fresh fruit and vegetables.)
The decision to remove the standards came after a work session in June during which council and planning commission members reviewed some of the proposed changes to the LDC.
During a presentation about the new use standards, council member Neil Anderson accused staff of trying to “manipulate the market” and only pursuing such action as a response to unfavorable reaction to the Dollar General on Pine Grove Drive, the city’s 11th location. That project went through the planning process in 2018.
“[W]e’re trying to pick something we’ve got some pushback on instead of letting the market take care of itself,” Anderson said during the June 24 meeting. “Yet we don’t do that with hamburgers. We don’t do that with car lots. In fact, we get more, more and more car lots are all moving to the same spot, yet we say that’s fine. Does that look good? No. But that’s the way the economy likes it.”
In an early draft of the LDC, discount variety stores were defined as retail stores with limited assortments of goods, mostly under $10 each. The city will continue to consider the stores as a general retail use under the new code, which goes into effect this December.
As drafted, the proposed conditions on discount variety stores included a separation requirement to prevent stores from locating within a mile of each other. Similar suggested separation requirements were removed for car washes as well — another popular land use in Wilmington that residents have grown critical of.
Previously drafted language would have prohibited new car washes from being built within a half-mile radius of an existing car wash, but that text was later deleted after council approved plans for a car wash on Carolina Beach Road recently.
Anderson also chided staff for this proposed separation requirement, ultimately leading to its removal. “It’s just not capitalism. It’s not the free market. It’s not what government should be doing,” he said in the June joint meeting. “What he said,” councilman Charlie Rivenbark echoed.
“You’re trying to manipulate the market,” Anderson added. “You’re playing God.”
The land in question was next to a property zoned exclusively for a car wash. Council was told the neighboring property owner may no longer be interested in building a vehicle wash and members believed they wouldn’t pursue it if the other developer built first.
Other guidance related to car washes did make it into the final document, such as rules on the way the open tunnels face and a ban on using corner lots for the use.
Separation requirements, to prevent uses from building too close to one another, are included in the final approved version for group homes (half-mile), bed and breakfasts (400 feet), telecommunications towers (1,500 feet), electronic gaming establishments (500 feet), sexually-oriented businesses (1,000 feet), pawnshops (2,000 feet) and billboards.
A fast-growing franchise, Dollar General has significant investments and connections in Wilmington. Its CEO Todd Vasos is a native of the city. The company celebrated its 15,000th store here in 2018 and opened its newest brand, DGX, downtown in November. This past weekend, DGX sponsored the city’s street fair as part of its annual Azalea Festival.
A city spokesperson said there were no legal concerns about the originally proposed language.
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