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Morgan County sees much ado about a dollar store

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — There’s a little pocket of land, about 12 acres, that’s nestled in an idyllic section of southern Morgan County on U.S. 522. Warm Springs Ridge and Cacapon Mountain sit to the west, and to the south rests the Union Chapel Methodist Church with its four brick walls and white steeple protruding into the blue sky. Oakland Road branches off to the east, where it swiftly disappears among the adjacent hills.

That once-innocuous field has touched off a maelstrom of debate in the recent months following reports that it was being eyed as the site of a new Dollar General store. A song was written. Protests were voiced. Loyalties were questioned, as were motivations. Statements were read. Resignations were demanded. Constitutional rights were invoked. Petitions were gathered.

Meanwhile, there the field sits.

Emerging to the forefront has been a standoff of sorts between Morgan County commissioner Bob Ford and Morgan County Economic Development Authority board member Jerry Berman. Berman wrote a song that was adopted by the proposed store’s opponents, resulting in Ford stating that he would not vote to fund the EDA until some members of the board – namely, Berman – resigned.

It all began a little after Thanksgiving 2014, when news emerged that plans were in the works to build a new Dollar General store at the corner of Oakland Road and U.S. 522, about 10 miles south of Berkeley Springs. The idea was to combine four of the Oakland Overlook development’s lots into one, 2.5-acre plot geared toward commercial property, leaving the remaining eight half-acre properties for single-family residences. Morgan County does not have zoning.

Soon after it came to light, a faction of citizens began to vociferously protest the proposal. A large percentage of the protesters have a direct connection to the area, with some living nearby in the upscale Cacapon South development and others in the general vicinity. The group came forth with a jingle that samples the state’s unofficial anthem, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

A sampling:

“Dollar store, don’t come here,

To this place we revere.

South Morgan, West Virginia.

Dollar store, don’t come here.”

The song’s lyrics were penned by Berman. A resident of Great Cacapon, Berman has practiced law for 35 years and contributed to or spearheaded a multitude of volunteer efforts within the county. Those include the recent launch of Berkeley Springs Project Open Voice, a partnership with Comcast that will create an online platform for community members to share and disseminate information; the enhancement of the county’s GIS mapping; and working with providers to improve the area’s high-speed Internet deficiencies.

“I’ve done a great deal of volunteer work for this county,” Berman said, adding that his protest efforts were undertaken “as John Q. Citizen” and did not represent the EDA in any capacity.

Ford agreed that Berman has a constitutional right to protest, but given his status as a board member with the county’s economic development branch, it’s a bit of an odd coupling in his eyes.

“I’m not here to take First Amendment rights away from anyone, but I believe when you sit on a board and your name is in the paper under this, that and the other with EDA, with Comcast and all this other stuff, you can’t do that and then come around and say, ‘Oh no, now I’m Jerry Berman, private citizen,'” Ford said.

“If you want to do things as John Q. Public, I’ve got no problem with that, but if you also represent an economic board, you should step down.”

At the Morgan County Commission’s March 19 meeting, Ford insinuated as such when he read from a three-page statement questioning the motives of some EDA members. It was also the first time he publicly disclosed that he would not vote for any EDA funding.

“I told them, ‘I won’t give you 10 cents as long as this stuff is going on,'” Ford said. “And I won’t. I won’t vote to fund that board until they straighten up.”

The EDA had been seeking a match to its $30,000 state grant through the West Virginia Department of Commerce. The commission tabled the matter until its April 2 meeting.

When the vote came up then, Ford again reiterated his position that he would not vote to fund the EDA. However, commissioners Brad Close and Joel Tuttle voted to match the EDA’s grant, supplying $15,000 in cash and $15,000 in kind.

“We really can’t move backward,” Tuttle said. “We need to move forward.”

The EDA also has been without a paid director since December 2014.

Berman, who describes himself as a 35-year “First Amendment warrior,” said it is that right which allows him the security to protest.

His issue isn’t so much with the store itself, he said, but the location. Morgan County has a vacant business park about a mile south of the planned site, he said, and a store location there would help cut into the county’s deficit.

“From day one, I’ve said to go there. My thing has always been, ‘Why don’t you think about another location?’ The business park is empty, it has the land, it’s on (U.S.) 522. They could buy it for less than on the residential area, and it would take care of residents and return money to the county,” he said.

Berman said the consensus behind the movement is that the proposed location isn’t conducive to handling business-type traffic. It’s also an attempt to protect the rural character of the area.

“There’s no consideration of the balance of equities,” Berman said. “This area has so much natural beauty, you have the local arts community – we have to preserve ‘Almost Heaven, West Virginia’ as much as we can.”

Originally, the lots at Oakland Overlook were designed for low- to middle-income families, but none of the 12 lots attracted an interested party. Cacapon Associates, which owns the property in question, should be able to replat the land if it so chooses, Ford said, as long as none of the lots had been sold.

In Ford’s mind, it’s cut and dry. They meet the requirements, they get the approval, they build.

“(The developer) got an idea to break some of it off into commercial property,” Ford said. “As long as he hadn’t sold any of the residential lots, he could turn it into whatever he wants since Morgan County has no zoning. Who am I to question them if they want to put a store here?”

On Feb. 17, the Morgan County Planning Commission voted 7 to 2 to approve the preliminary plat and to waive the one-acre subdivision requirements. It also voted 8 to 1 to approve waivers that prolonged the time certain permits were due.

A citizen lawsuit was filed March 19 against the Planning Commission, accusing the panel primarily of not following its own subdivision rules in granting the waivers and plat approval. The plaintiffs all either live or own property in the area of the proposed store.

Morgan County currently has two Dollar General stores – one in Berkeley Springs and one in Paw Paw.

– Assistant City Editor Jamison C. West can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 135.

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