Dagsboro council debates if liquor store is permissible due to zoning

DAGSBORO — Residents in Dagsboro’s downtown are factoring into a survey equation, as town leaders move to resolve a brewing disagreement over a proposed liquor store.

At a special meeting Dec. 2, Town Council, acting on Town Solicitor Gregory Morris’ legal advice, rescinded its previous preliminary site plan approval for an upscale liquor store along Vines Creek Road, proposed by Clay Snead of Snead’s Property and Carlton Savage of Scaled Engineering Inc.

Council, during its Sept. 21 virtual meeting, had voted 3-1 in approving the preliminary plans for the store, to be located between Rosana’s Holistic Hair Studio and Heather’s Home Works, not far from the intersection split at Armory Road.

At the Dec. 2 meeting, however, council reversed its decision. By a 4-0 vote, members rescinded their previous approval, following objection from Ciro Poppiti of Poppiti Law and Savannah Discount Liquor owner Nivav Desai.

Their protest is that the property is zoned Town Center, which does not permit the sale of alcoholic beverages, and that, therefore, the preliminary approval was invalid as it contradicts provisions of the town zoning code.

Savannah Discount Liquor is in the town’s Highway Commercial-zoned district, where liquor stores are allowed, as spelled out specifically in Dagsboro’s town code.

However, the Town Center section at present does not list liquor stores as a permitted use.

“This is where one business owner’s interpretation of the code changed everything for our client, Mr. Snead,” said Mr. Savage. “One person’s view of the code has taken weight over an entire town government — and several months of meetings.”

During council’s virtual meeting Dec. 14, Mr. Snead asked members to consider changing the Town Center language in the code from “beverage” to “liquor store,” due to the argument that “beverage” is not defined as “alcohol,” according to Mr. Poppiti, who is representing Mr. Desai.

“My request is that you do this right, as the town already has the remedy available — modify the Town Center district to allow an alcohol beverage store,” said Mr. Snead. “In my conversations with many professionals in the business, no one has seen a project get this far into an approval process and then be rescinded.”

Mr. Snead and his attorney, Chad Lingenfelter, as well as Mr. Savage, are seeking just resolution and say the solution is easy: a town code amendment.

“There is a simple solution that even the opposing attorney agrees could be the answer: Formally add ‘liquor store’ to the list of permitted uses for the Town Center and clarify what was clearly ambiguous, at best, from the start,” said Mr. Savage.

Mr. Lingenfelter agreed.

“The town has elected to rescind the preliminary site plan based on Town Solicitor Morris’ opinion. We don’t agree with that opinion,” he said .“Echoing what Mr. Poppiti said in his letter, as well as in his comments on the record, we are asking then for a simple solution to that problem. And that problem is, again, according to Town Solicitor Morris’ opinion, that an alcoholic-beverage store, otherwise known as a liquor store, is not permitted under the Town Center district code, which is part of the town’s charter.”

Mr. Savage continued, “Further, the use of alcoholic beverages is included several times throughout the code; however, the word ‘liquor store’ only comes up specifically in the Highway Commercial zone.”

Mr. Lingenfelter said the intent coming before Town Council during its Dec. 14 meeting was “asking for a simple solution, which would be to amend the Town Center district code, which again would be under the purview of the Town Council, via amending its charter.”

Any proposed change to town code requires a process that includes a public hearing. Dagsboro Councilman William Chandler III suggested that the town first canvass residents in the district in question for their input.

“Before you amend the code and have a public hearing, I think you would want to do a survey to figure out what the residents of the Town Center who live in it and reside in it full time, what their feelings are,” said Councilman Chandler. “So I think in a minimum, you would want to do that first.”

Council members Norwood Truitt and Theresa Ulrich supported Councilman Chandler’s suggestion.

“The way it was done in the past was that we sent out a written survey by mail in connection with the 2015 comprehensive plan,” said Councilman Chandler. “That was sent to the residents, and they responded to the survey. That information was then collected and assembled.”

Town Administrator Cindi Brought recalled that was the process last year, too.

“And we did do that for 2019, as well. In 2019, we did a survey,” she said.

The town’s mayor, Brian Baull, said the first part of the process should start now.

“Let’s take the first step in crafting together a mailer that we can send out as quickly as possible — to gauge the residents of the Town Center on what their thoughts are on the issue before we’d look at scheduling a public hearing on the matter,” he said.

Town administration is currently compiling the survey, which will be sent out after Christmas to approximately 150 residences in the Town Center district, Ms. Brought said.

Also during the Dec. 14 meeting, Mr. Lingenfelter said Dagsboro’s Town Center code has been amended in the past, as have other districts within the town charter.

“Furthermore, a quick search of just three random districts — Town Center district, Residential Planned Community and the Light Industrial district within the town of Dagsboro — over the past 14 years, those districts have been amended at least 10 times,” he said.

At the September meeting, Councilman Chandler cast the lone negative vote in council’s approval of preliminary plans, which followed a 5-0 recommended approval by the town’s Planning Commission.

In opposing the request, Councilman Chandler cited inconstancy with existing businesses, concern for health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Dagsboro and the location near a historic cemetery and Prince George’s Chapel.

Mr. Lingenfelter said Mr. Snead has provided documentation to the town showing that Delaware’s Department of Transportation is not requiring a traffic-impact study, which he termed “a very huge step in a process for developing any piece of property.”

Mr. Savage added, “Pretty much every town I can think of has a liquor store” in its Town Center district.

“Some may be grandfathered in; others don’t. I don’t have all the details on how they got there, but a liquor store generally is a use that is in most Town Centers,” said Mr. Savage. “Basically, in my career of 15-plus years, I have never seen a town or a body decide by formal vote and remove such a position. It was definitely shocking to me.”