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Lawsuit, transparency issues shroud plans for Dollar General in Springfield

Residents of the Bon Homme County town want answers after developers say they entered a contract in May, but no public record exists.

Springfield Water Tower
Springfield is located in Bon Homme County on the Missouri River. It's population was 2,056 in 2019, including inmates at the Mike Durfee State Prison.
Hunter Dunteman / Mitchell Republic

SPRINGFIELD, S.D. — Residents in Springfield displayed mixed emotions at their most recent city council meeting over transparency and legal issues after they say city leaders sprung the development of a Dollar General store on the public with improper notice.

In November 2021, Sean and Cindy Doyle, who live just outside Springfield’s city limits, were contacted by a local realtor contracted with the city about annexing their property.

“She basically gave us three options. Option one was, ‘Either you can [let the city] annex it and keep the land, and it is what it is, but then you’re responsible for what happens on that land.’ Option two was to sell it to the city, but she said, ‘We would hate to set that precedent.’ The third option was ‘You can just donate it to the city,’” Cindy recalled Green saying. “She slides the papers over and it’s like sign here and sign there.”

That was the first Doyle had heard of what would become a controversial plan to bring in a Dollar General to the Missouri River town of 2,000 (including inmates at the Mike Durfee State Prison) that lies 30 miles west of Yankton.

“We were just very confused and shocked by it all that that little strip was part of our land,” Cindy said.

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When the South Dakota Department of Transportation rerouted Highway 37 to curve around Springfield rather than run through it in 1999, a triangular section of farm field where the current highway runs was purchased from then-owner Wayne Dempster. After completion of the project, the SDDOT dropped their claim to the property, and it was eventually ceded to the city of Springfield — except for a 33-foot wide stretch on the right of way that was ceded back to the Doyles, who bought the property from the Dempsters in 2008.

After the Doyles took some time to consider how they wanted to handle the situation, they elected not to voluntarily cede the land, which the city and Dollar General only need for use as a driveway into the property, not necessarily for the building itself.

“I don’t really like the idea of some big store coming in here and taking business away from our locally owned businesses,” Cindy said.

Fast forward to Jan. 30. The Doyles were enjoying their weekend at home, when they got an unexpected visit from the Bon Homme County Sheriff’s Office.

“All of a sudden, we hear lawyers saying they don’t need our permission. They can still put it out there, that it’s a right of way,” Cindy said. “(At) 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, we get served with papers.”

The city had filed a quiet title civil lawsuit against the Doyles, claiming the couple has no “estate, right, title, lien or interest,” in the strip of land. They were given 30 days to provide notice to Springfield City Attorney Derrick Johnson that they intended to dispute the quiet title suit.

“I tried to call his office multiple times for multiple days and left multiple messages and he never responded. I called and said we got this summons that you drafted and could you give me a call and explain it to me,” Cindy said. “He called me back and said ‘We’re just trying to clear up that title, it was a mistake at the auditor’s office that got overlooked for the last 20 years.’”

Through a series of texts and emails, the Doyles notified Johnson their intent to dispute the quiet title suit. On March 7, the couple were served again by the sheriff’s office with a motion for default judgment, where Johnson claimed he had not been served with their intent to dispute.

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At the Springfield City Council that same night, Julie Fleek, Cindy’s sister who also lives in Springfield, drilled Johnson on why the city has asked for a default judgment on the basis of failure to file intent to dispute.

“When you sent [the Doyles] the letter, what did you say in that letter?” Fleek asked Johnson. “You said all they had to do was respond to your office.”

“No. They have to serve me in my office,” Johnson emphasized in response. “They sent an email, which is not service and therefore does not have to be addressed. It’s improper service.”

As the initial lawsuit had drug on, AAB Engineering, the firm developing the land for Dollar General, got tired of waiting for the city to get permission to annex the land, and instead turned to the Bon Homme County Planning and Zoning Commission, hoping to acquire a conditional use permit to operate a retail store on agricultural land. They sought a jump start on construction while the land dispute was handled.

The commission, citing the complexities of the land dispute, voted down the permit 3-2.

Building
Springfield City Council meetings are held at the city's Community Service Center, which also hosts the library.
Submitted photo

Lack of transparency leads to frustration

At the Springfield City Council meeting on March 7, Dollar General was not a part of the original agenda published in the Springfield Times. A last minute change added the item for discussion, as a developer working with Dollar General would be speaking to the council.

Mike Mantle, a preferred developer who handles approximately 30 Dollar General openings each year, gave long-awaited insight into the timeline of how the store and city made a deal.

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“Springfield showed up on [Dollar General’s radar] at the end of 2020 as a new market. When this happens, I’ll drive to the market, look at it,” Mantle told the public. “What I did in this case was, I saw the city owned that triangular lot. I reached out to Mike [Lee, mayor of Springfield] in January or February of 2021. He said ‘Hey, we’ve got that tract for sale.’ We looked at the site from a viability and a feasibility standpoint.”

At some point in May 2021, Mantle said he entered into a contract with the city regarding the construction of Dollar General. Alex Bochman, editor of the Springfield Times, asked Mantle what he meant by “entered into a contract.”

“I presented a purchase and sale agreement with explicit terms, timelines, responsibilities and those sorts of things and I received it back,” Mantle answered.

“So it was finalized in May? Things were a go?” Bochman followed up.

City Council
The Springfield City Council met on Monday, March 7, 2022, in part to discuss the proposed Dollar General. Pictured includes Mayor Mike Lee, center, in maroon, and City Attorney Derrick Johnson, center, in green.
Hunter Dunteman / Mitchell Republic

“Yes,” Mantle said, “and I’ve spent an enormous amount of money on a variety of things including survey and title.”

“That’s an agreement [the city] can’t honor because of the title problem,” one resident in the crowd, who didn’t provide a name, said.

“That’s not true, but you can make those comments,” Mantle said.

In her interview with the Mitchell Republic, Cindy Doyle said Jolene Green’s appearance at her home in November 2021 was the first time that she, her husband or any of their friends had heard about the Dollar General.

“I do know that the people we talked to about it that night had zero idea,” Cindy said. “One of them is a business owner in town. You would think maybe she would have heard it.”

Council members acknowledged at the meeting they knew of the plans as far back as February 2021.

Bochman’s review of old publications of the Springfield Times — which is the Springfield City Council’s legal newspaper — found no record in the council’s minutes of any discussion regarding the contract Mantle referred to (or Dollar General at all) until the council’s Nov. 1 regular meeting, where they approved a building permit for AAB Engineering on behalf of Dollar General.

Though the council regularly enters executive session, which is closed to the public, South Dakota law dictates that any action taken on matters discussed in executive session must be approved in open session.

Regardless of whether residents are for or against the Dollar General coming to town, many disapprove of the way the council went about it.

“I’m for the Dollar General, or any business coming to this dying town, but I’m more against a land grab than a new business coming to town,” said Will Paulson, a resident who attends and records every meeting he can. “What else is more sacred? In a town like this, you shouldn't have to worry about the city government doing something like this.”

Fleek, who personally is against Dollar General’s business practices, pointed to the council’s handling as the main issue as well.

“I’ve never seen such unprofessionalism in a government entity. Even though we’re a small town, I’m still shocked with the level of unprofessionalism that exists,” Fleek said. “They’re not following protocol, they’re not transparent, it appears they’re doing things behind closed doors. It seems very dirty to me.”

Land
The site of a proposed Dollar General in Springfield, looking northwest toward the proposed site of the store from the edge of disputed land.
Hunter Dunteman / Mitchell Republic

The Springfield City Finance Office did not provide a copy of the contract Mantle referred to entering in May 2021, nor did they provide an amount the city planned to spend under the contract.

Mayor Mike Lee did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the lawsuit or transparency concerns.

With an ongoing legal dispute, it’s unclear what might come next for the store, as officials with Dollar General and their developers did not respond to requests for comment.

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021 and now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on regional news that impacts the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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