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WALNUT COVE, NC — Ephraim Harrell’s father didn’t know a Dollar General was being planned for a property across from his Walnut Cove home until he saw a surveyor and went to say hello. When the surveyor told him why he was there, and Harrell realized how quickly the store could be built, he started questioning what they could do to stop it. The immediate answer was nothing.

“From the town they were saying, ‘our hands are tied, it’s zoned neighborhood business,’” Harrell said.

Harrell’s parents live on Main Street, in an area he says is lined by historic homes. When he learned the company would have to go through a conditional use permit approval process, he saw a glimmer of hope.

“We did have a chance,” Harrell said. “It wasn’t gonna be easy.”

His first step was to create a petition and a Facebook group. In a town with only three stoplights, the group had 500 members within two days.

“We eventually at the end of this had over a thousand signatures, and 850 members on the Facebook group,” Harrell said. “Those are sizeable numbers, especially for a town the size of Walnut Cove.”

Harrell got some advice from lawyers and prepared for a board meeting which was scheduled for November but was pushed back to January. In the meantime, they started to build a case.

“You have to present facts,” Harrell said. “I couldn’t get up there and say, ‘I can’t believe you would do this to this field, I grew up across the street.’”

They started looking at the geographical location and comparing it to other surrounding Dollar Generals. There is already a location in Walnut Cove.

Harrell also investigated how close the new location would be to houses and its proximity to Southeastern Stokes Middle School, which is a property away.

The strongest case against the new store was the proposed location in itself. The plan was to have the entrance to the store come off Smith Street, a dead-end road lined with four homes, which intersects Main Street around one of its few curves.

“That’s what we started with,” Harrell added. “We were like, ‘Can we build some kind of a case with these ingredients?’”

In a five-hour meeting in January, Harrell presented his findings to the town’s Planning and Zoning Board, with several lawyers representing the company in attendance to present their case.

“They wanted to argue that it was very similar to their other small-town Dollar Generals, but I was able to argue the antithesis, which is it’s actually nothing like those,” Harrell said.

In the end, the board voted 3-1 to deny Dollar General’s permit. Harrell detailed that the members who voted to deny cited the safety of the location and that there was no way to prove it wouldn’t harm nearby property values.

“These are very hard issues to deal with,” Walnut Cove Town Manager Kim Greenwood said. “It’s an on-taking for us, as for the town staff, where we don’t have a full-time attorney.”

Greenwood detailed the process the board went through, in having to learn the rules of evidence and how it can be presented.

“It’s hard for us to weigh between, we have great citizens of the town, and a company that – we love to see investors come to our town – so we’re in the middle of two different things,” he said. “It’s very emotional for both parties.”

Greenwood said this case did present the need for some changes to the town’s codes.

“It’s much easier to approve a typewriter repair shop than it is to try to find an internet café,” he said. “So, there are things that need to be updated.”

That said, making those changes costs money, so Greenwood added a line needs to be drawn considering the size of the town.

“I think the law has to catch up with where culture and society is at now,” he said.

Although the locals may have won their initial fight against the new location, they are aware Dollar General has an opportunity to appeal the board’s decision.

“To have three people vote against you, and give two reasons for voting against you, we feel pretty confident that an appeal would, maybe it was on the table but I don’t know if it is after that meeting,” Harrell said.

Greenwood added that, while the town is tasked with putting a value on people’s homes, it’s tough to put a price tag on the memories formed in them.

“It’s great to see growth, economic growth,” he said. “But it’s very sad when it affects peoples’ homes too, because that’s the last place that we can turn to.”