More than a year after Wal-Mart first approached Harford County planning officials about a possible new store in Bel Air, the super retailer is reactivating a traffic study for the project, and some area residents say that if plans for the new store proceed, they will put up a fight.
Wal-Mart originally approached the county last spring with an interest in building a new store on a privately-owned, undeveloped parcel at Plumtree Road and Rte. 924 in Bel Air, according to Pete Gutwald, Harford County director of planning and zoning. The 30-acre parcel is zoned for business and Gutwald said that it is more than large enough to accommodate a Wal-Mart Supercenter. At the time, Gutwald said Wal-Mart was conducting a traffic impact study, a step required by the county in the development process. But the traffic study was never returned to the county and until recently, county officials had no further indication of Wal-Mart’s plans.
A traffic impact study is used to determine the current level of service provided by the roadways serving a proposed development and to identify any mitigation that may be required of the developer by government officials.
Traffic counts contained in such a study are good for one year, Gutwald said, and the counts from the Wal-Mart study expired at the end of March. But after a recent scoping meeting between the company and county officials, Gutwald said Wal-Mart was planning to conduct another traffic study. Evidence of the renewed traffic counts has been reported by residents who say they spotted traffic counting devices in the area last week.
The Bel Air South Community Foundation, a group formed over a year ago to fight the Bel Air Wal-Mart, has maintained a database of people opposed to the development and is determined to oppose the Bel Air store if Wal-Mart decides to proceed, according to Chairperson Ruth Rhymaun. Rhymaun said that the group has gathered hundreds of names on a petition, citing concerns about increased traffic and crime, and is raising money for an independent traffic review and possible legal fees.
If Wal-Mart decides to proceed with the Bel Air store, further steps are required, including a community input meeting. According to the Harford County website, “The purpose of the community meeting is for the developer to provide information to the community regarding the proposed development and to allow citizens to ask questions and make comments and suggestions. At the meeting, the developer shall present draft plans for the site layout.” Notice of a community input meeting must be provided at least two weeks in advance.
Wal-Mart currently has stores in Aberdeen, Fallston and Abingdon and was rumored to be closing the Abingdon store in favor of the move to Bel Air. An obscure provision in the deed for the Abingdon location limits the sale of groceries on the property until 2018, which may be preventing the company from expanding the store into a Wal-Mart Supercenter, which sells groceries. Both the Aberdeen and Fallston stores are Supercenters.
Repeated requests for comment made by The Dagger to Wal-Mart headquarters have not been returned.
Jim Richardson, Harford County director of economic development, said that while he didn’t have any hard data, verbal reports indicated that sales at the Fallston Supercenter are exceeding expectations. Regarding a potential Bel Air store, Richardson said the company hadn’t disclosed their plans beyond the traffic study but the proposed site, which is zoned for business and located near major roads and residential developments, had generated interest from other developers. “There is a great deal of interest in the site,” Richardson wrote in an e-mail, “but it appears folks are waiting for the air to clear before they try to move forward.”