A proposed zoning change that would have allowed a dollar store to locate in the Watson Chapel community was turned down 7-1 Tuesday by the Pine Bluff City Council.
A public hearing was held before the City Council meeting on whether to overturn a decision from the Pine Bluff Planning Commission to deny a request to rezone 3800 Oakwood Road from R-1 Residential to B-3 Commercial.
The project developer, Sam Ware of Ware Properties LLC, said he would like to build a Dollar General store at the site, which is currently occupied by a single-family home. David Hoffman also spoke in favor of the request, representing a family member who actually owns the property.
Representatives of Watson Chapel School District and a neighbor, Janice Kimbrell, spoke against the request. Kimbrell gave the aldermen copies of a petition listing 240 names of people against the proposal. They cited concerns about increased traffic and student safety because of the three schools in the immediate area.
Alderman Glen Brown, one of the aldermen who represents the Watson Chapel area, voted “present” rather than for or against the proposal. Brown said in an interview last week that he had heard from people who live farther down the road from the proposed site who were in favor of the proposal. On Tuesday, he said during the discussion of the item that he is pro-business.
“I believe in employment; I believe in the taxes they are going to bring to Pine Bluff,” Brown said.
Ware presented the aldermen with traffic count data from the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department that showed larger traffic numbers on U.S. 79 north of Interstate 530, less traffic at the intersection of U.S. 79 and Sulphur Springs Road and even less traffic farther west on Sulphur Springs Road.
Ware said he has built Dollar General stores near schools before without them causing problems.
“This is not going to increase or decrease your traffic, but it is going to bring jobs and tax dollars to Pine Bluff,” Ware said, adding that, since it would be a neighborhood store, the people shopping at it would be people who are already driving through that area.
Hoffman said the house on the lot has been for sale for two years and the owners have not received a single offer. Hoffman said he believes that it will be impossible for the house to be sold as a residential property because of the other nearby commercial buildings, the schools and traffic.
“To approve this rezoning will prevent a vacant house from being continued in Pine Bluff and it will prevent a house from being condemned,” Hoffman said.
The proposed site is at an intersection between where Watson Chapel Junior High School and L.L. Owen Elementary School are located. Watson Chapel High School is also within sight.
Watson Chapel Superintendent Danny Hazelwood and school board members Danny Holcomb and Maxine Nelson spoke against the proposal, as did Kimbrell.
“It’s an extremely dangerous intersection right now,” Hazelwood said, adding that every new school year he gets calls from parents who are concerned about traffic in the area. “I’m concerned for the 3,000 kids I’m responsible for. I don’t know what to tell parents when they call and say that they saw someone almost get hit.”
Hazelwood said he could see the argument of bringing jobs to Pine Bluff, but from his point of view, the children and their safety come first. He said adding more commercial buildings to the area might be acceptable in the future if the road is widened or if a traffic light is installed, but not as the road exists currently.
Holcomb and Nelson agreed.
“It’s a total nightmare now that will only get worse if we implement this,” Holcomb said.
“We’re thinking about the safety of our students,” Nelson said.
Kimbrell cited the traffic as her main concern, along with fears that there would be trash in the store parking lot.
“I’m telling you, I can’t get out of my driveway,” Kimbrell said, referring to the existing traffic in the area.
The request was originally considered at the Jan. 31 Pine Bluff Planning Commission meeting, where commissioners split 3-3 on the issue. Five votes are needed to approve a proposal, so the rezoning request failed for a lack of a fifth vote.
The project’s backers appealed the decision to the City Council, which prompted Tuesday’s public hearing.
During the Jan. 31 Planning Commission meeting, Ware said Dollar General asked him to find a location in the Watson Chapel area, and that this is the only site he found in his five months of research that would be suitable for the planned 9,100-square-foot store, which is a larger version of the types of stores that Dollar General builds. Ware said that White Hall is getting a new Dollar General on U.S. 270 and he is also looking into the University Drive area in Pine Bluff for potential sites.