Sunday, October 21, 2012

Bel Air Gets a Temporary Reprieve...

from the Harford County Dagger
Hundreds of protesters flooded a meeting Wednesday, during which Wal-Mart’s plans to build a new Supercenter in Bel Air were met with concerns from the committee charged with recommending projects for county approval.

Wal-Mart said after the meeting that it would address comments made by the Developement Advisory Committee and work to meet state and local requirements for the new store proposed along Route 924 near Plumtree Road.

DAC Chairman Moe Davenport said that the plans for a 186,000 square foot Supercenter raised issues that he characterized after the meeting as “significant.” They include design, parking, environmental concerns and a traffic study conducted to address the impact on nearby intersections. As such, DAC denied the plans as submitted, Davenport said.

For a project of this size and scope, an initial denial followed by resubmissions is not unusual. However, Davenport said that it was up to Wal-Mart to determine whether it would address the committee’s concerns and submit revised plans for consideration. There was a lot of work to be done, he said, but the timeframe was up to Wal-Mart. “The ball is in Wal-Mart’s court,” Davenport said.

Wal-Mart issued a statement after the meeting indicating it intended to proceed with the new store. The statement also cited community support for the project, despite the protests from citizens at the meeting:

“We were pleased to receive comments on our plans from the Development Advisory Committee today.

We heard from a number of county agencies and state agencies about their requirements for our proposed new store, and we will work to meet those requirements.

The State Highway Administration requested some clarification of specific features included in our traffic plan, and we will provide that information.

Walmart has submitted to the county the signatures of more than 1,400 county residents who support our project. Many others in the community support our plans and their voices will be heard in the days ahead.”

If Wal-Mart resubmits plans as promised, they will be posted on the county Web site. Pete Gutwald, Harford County director of planning and zoning, said that, consistent with normal practice, there would be no further DAC meetings on the Bel Air Wal-Mart.

The Plans

At the meeting Wednesday, DAC members representing county and state agencies took turns outlining concerns and requirements to be addressed before the company’s plans could be recommended for final approval by the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning.

Representatives from the State Highway Administration (SHA) listed a number of concerns in the existing traffic study and also requested that Wal-Mart provide a revised traffic impact analysis without a planned access to the site from Route 924. The revised study would be used to review the Harford County Council’s request that SHA deny store access from the state road, leaving two other planned entrances – one from Plumtree Road and another from Bel Air South Parkway.

Overall, the Wal-Mart traffic study contained deficiencies that were “significant enough to prevent an adequate review or to draw conclusions from the data,” according to Shane Grimm, Harford County chief of board of appeals and site plan review. He said after the meeting that technical errors and resubmittals were not unusual for such a project, but that, technical issues aside, the current traffic study ”would still fail to adequately address mitigation at the failing intersections identified in the study in accordance with our Adequate Public Facilities (APF) regulations.”

In addition to the traffic study, other parts of the Wal-Mart plan could not be approved as presented, Grimm said. Plans involving forest conservation, outdoor lighting, adequate parking, landscaping and mitigation of impacted wetlands all needed revision or additional details, according to Grimm’s meeting report, which appears below. P&Z Walmart Comments

The Public

The DAC meeting was moved from its regular location in the county administration building to the county council chambers in expectation of a large public turnout, and the community did not disappoint. DAC committee members and Wal-Mart representatives were joined by approximately 200 citizens in the council chambers and some 100 more waiting to be let in.

Citizens’ comments extended the meeting to nearly four hours, and all were united in opposing the Bel Air store. Many cited the location near busy roads, residential neighborhoods and students walking to school. The Bel Air store would compound traffic backlogs, cause increased accidents, draw crime, and otherwise diminish the quality of life, speakers said. Others urged the company to expand the Abingdon Wal-Mart, citing millions spent on state road improvements near that store’s access road.

A presentation by the Bel Air South Community Foundation, a citizens’ group opposing the Bel Air store, included information about Wal-Mart stores around the country that were abandoned and for sale, with Supercenters built nearby.

Del. Glen Glass spoke against the Bel Air store, indicating he believed the scheduling of the DAC meeting during the day rather than in the evening was a violation of the public’s right to be present.

A list of recommended conditions to be imposed on the project was presented to DAC by a representative from the office of Harford County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti.

Other speakers quoted Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, who said the company would not go where it was not wanted, while several others called the high density business zoning of the Bel Air site a “mistake.”

That last assertion prompted the attorney for the land-owner to jump into the fray. “There is no mistake in the zoning of this property,” said Robert Lynch, who represents Evergreen Business Trust, which he said was controlled by Haron Dahan. The property is located in the development envelope, Lynch said, and as such was slated for high density development. He said a zoning change from residential to business use was approved by the county council because it would expand the tax base and avoid pressure on schools. Lynch said the council knew a big box store could be developed there under the B3 zoning that was last affirmed in 2009.

A Word From Wal-Mart…Part II

On Tuesday, one day before the DAC meeting, Wal-Mart met with The Dagger to discuss the project. Bill Wertz, Wal-Mart’s community and media relations director for the eastern division, outlined the benefits of the proposed Bel Air store. He also responded to some of the questions posed by The Dagger and our readers, and said that answers to the remaining questions noted below would be forthcoming; no responses were received as of Thursday afternoon.

Regarding the Abingdon site, Wertz said there were no plans to build a Sam’s Club once the store was vacated. He addressed several questions about an Abingdon store expansion as an alternative to the Bel Air store, by saying the company appreciated community input on ways it could be done, but store plans would not fit due to constraints at the site. When asked if the move to Bel Air was motivated by other factors, Wertz didn’t provide a direct response. He said that the Bel Air property with the proper zoning was located once the company decided they needed to move. When asked, how long Wal-Mart had been looking at the Bel Air site and if it was involved when the zoning change was made to high density business, Wertz said he did not know, but would find out.

Clarifying remarks made earlier by Wal-Mart representative Nina Albert at a closed door meeting with the Abingdon Community Council, Wertz said that the company gives back to communities at the state, national and local level. He said that $1 million was available through a Maryland grant program and that store managers also controlled a budget for local giving. Wertz did not know the amount of the local budget, but would find out. He also said that notes made public from Albert’s meeting with the Abingdon Community Council were not entirely accurate regarding the way local funds are allocated, and that he would check for details and respond at a later date. The notes in question were released by the Craig administration, which arranged the meeting.

Wertz said the Bel Air Supercenter would bring consumers a beautiful new store with a greater assortment of merchandise at low prices, including fresh produce and a garden center. Increased tax revenue and 100 new jobs would also come to the county as a result. When asked about the number of full time vs. part time jobs, Wertz was unable to provide a number, but said the majority would be full time. “This is a great project for the community”, he added.

Once approved, the store would take one year to build, Wertz said. Addressing a question about aesthetics, he said that the exterior would not be like the Abingdon store. Wertz said community input was welcome in that regard and the new store would reflect the company’s new branding. Regarding the other lots on the Bel Air site, Wertz said Wal-Mart has no plans to develop them, although the effect of potential development on those lots was included in the company’s traffic study.

Asked about opposition to the Bel Air store from the Harford County Council, Wertz that said the company was aware of their concerns about traffic. Whether or not access denied to the site from Route 924 would stop plans for the store, Wertz could not say if such access was essential. “We have an interest, just as the community does, in having a store accessible in a convenient and safe manner,” Wertz said, adding that the company was prepared to spend money to make that happen.

Regarding the public firestorm over the company’s plans, Wertz said that the company does its best to identify and resolve community concerns. Vocal opposition, he said, may not represent the community as a whole or the people who will shop in the store. Asked for the results of phone and mail surveys sent out by Wal-Mart to gauge support for the Bel Air store, Wertz said he did not have that information. Despite opposition in some cases, new company stores have typically proven to be immediately popular with customers and, a year later, many anticipated concerns have never materialized, Wertz said. “We want to be a welcome neighbor and part of the community that people are appreciative of.”

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