Plans to close the existing Abingdon Wal-Mart store and build a new, possibly 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter on Route 924 in Bel Air brought a crowd of vociferous opposition out en masse Thursday night, with community residents calling for a boycott of the company.
A standing-room-only crowd, estimated at more than 800 people, packed the auditorium of Patterson Mill Middle/High School Thursday during a community meeting intended to allow developers to present information and gather community input on their proposal to construct a new Wal-Mart store on 17 acres contained on a 33-acre undeveloped parcel near the intersection of Plumtree Road and Route 924 in Bel Air.
“None of us want you,” an attendee shouted at one point during the two-and-a-half hour long meeting. “Go away!”
Those words garnered a standing ovation and represented, at the most basic level, the sentiment of the packed auditorium–a sentiment which started early. During the initial welcome announcements, the crowd booed loudly at the mention of Wal-Mart representatives being in attendance.
Proposed for the Bel Air site is a Wal-Mart Supercenter, replete with an automotive center, pharmacy with drive-thru, groceries (with a separate market entrance), garden center, and screening in back for building services. The new store would be accessed by a main entrance off of Route 924 and could be open 24 hours a day. Traffic could be in range of 10,000 trips per day.
The impetus for Wal-Mart’s proposed move to Bel Air are the physical constraints of the Abingdon site, but also an obscure provision tucked into the deed of a nearby land deal, which restricts grocery store usage at the site.
Under the proposed plan, the existing Abingdon store would close once the purchase of the Plumtree Road site is finalized and new construction begins. The team at Wal-Mart will then begin to look at redevelopment opportunities–and possibly multiple retail users–for the Abingdon site. All current employees of the Abingdon store will be moved to the Bel Air location and an additional 75 to 100 employees are expected to be hired.
Community opposition aside, Wal-Mart still faces a number of hurdles before it can be proceed with its plans.
For starters, a required traffic study not yet complete. Harford County required that 20 different intersections, clustered mainly along Rt. 24 and Rt. 924, and stretching from Singer Road up to Route 1 and Route 24, be studied.
Site access was another issue. The State Highway Administration would not allow access from Route 24. A traffic light is planned on Route 924 at Bright Oaks, which will be the only entrance on Route 924 and will be the main entrance to the store. Other entrances are planned on Blue Spruce at both Bel Air South Parkway and Plumtree Road. Trucks making deliveries are expected to come north on Rt. 24, turn right on Plumtree, then right on Blue Spruce to the back of the store.
Wal-Mart hopes to have a preliminary plan, with a completed traffic study, finalized and submitted to the Harford County Development Advisory Committee prior to Labor Day. While declining to estimate when the new store might open, representatives said that following the necessary approvals, the closing of the property purchase and putting the work out to bid, the construction window would be 9 – 12 months.
The concerns expressed by the community consisted of the increased traffic, impact on local businesses, a “race to the bottom for wages,” crime, and a desire to keep the store in Abingdon and expand at that site. Also, noise, lighting from the store affecting nearby homes, and having a store so close to residential areas were mentioned as areas of concern.
Nina Albert, director of community affairs for Wal-Mart, countered that national studies have shown a positive economic impact from Wal-Mart stores and she said that there was local support for the Bel Air expansion.
In response, Wal-Mart representatives also said that noise would be considered, lights would be directed downward and cut off at the property line, so as not to extend out into the community, and security would be looked at during planning.
While some opponents handed out materials to attendees another called for an all-out boycott of the exsting Abingdon store. Several attendees held signs reading “No 9/24 Walmart,” a petition was circulated opposing the store and some called for fundraising to conduct an independent traffic study.
Present at the meeting were representatives from Wal-Mart, a traffic engineer, an architect, and Thomas Kleine, an attorney with Troutman Sanders LLP of Virginia Beach. Also in attendance were Harford County Council members Dion Guthrie, Joe Woods, Jim McMahan, and Mary Ann Lisanti. A representative for council president Billy Boniface was also present.
One speaker thanked McMahan for his effort to institute community input meetings, which allow the public to see and and offer comment on plans before they are formally presented to county. While the council has no role in approving the proposed Wal-Mart, beyond having approved the zoning on the property, Lisanti said that council members can advocate for the public’s position, which she intended to do.
At one point in the meeting, a community member asked those in the audience who opposed the Bel Air Wal-Mart plan to stand and face the county council. Very few remained seated.
“These are your voters,” she said.
From the Community Input Meeting (CIM) to approval of a proposed development is a multi-step process that can be accomplished within six months, but may take longer, according to Pete Gutwald, Director of Planning & Zoning. Below is an overview of the next steps in the process:
DAC Meetings – Open to the Public
Following the Community Input Meeting (CIM), the developer has 45 days to submit a summary of comments from the meeting to the Department of Planning and Zoning and up to one year to submit preliminary/site plans to the Development Advisory Committee.
What’s a DAC?
The Development Advisory Committee (DAC) is advisory to the Director of Planning and Zoning and is comprised of representatives from county agencies, including but not limited to:
 Department of Planning and Zoning.
 Department of Public Works.
 Health Department.
 Department of Parks and Recreation.
 Soil Conservation District.
 Sheriff’s Department.
 Harford County Public Schools.
 Emergency Operations.
DAC makes a technical analysis of what regulations apply to a proposed development, and what the developer must do to comply with those regulations. The Plumtree property is zoned B3 General Business District, which does allow for a business such as Wal-Mart, as well as other uses, including residential apartments and townhouses, hotels, and warehousing.
Plans submitted to DAC may be the same as those presented at the CIM, or revised to reflect community input or other changes made by the developer. As plans evolve, there may be more than one DAC meeting for a proposed development.
Notice of a DAC meeting must be made public two weeks in advance, and include signage posted on the affected property. DAC meetings are held on designated Wednesdays at 9:00 a.m. in the 2nd Floor Conference Room of the county administration building located at 220 South Main Street in Bel Air. DAC meetings are open to the public and public comment is allowed, as provided for as follows:
“Any citizen attending the Development Advisory Committee meeting may make any comment regarding a development plan and each comment shall be addressed by a County agency. If a representative of a County agency is unable to address the comment at the meeting, the citizen’s name and address shall be obtained, and a representative of the appropriate County agency shall address the citizen’s comment by written response to the Director of Planning within 2 weeks of the meeting. The Director of Planning shall be responsible for ensuring that all responses are forwarded to the appropriate citizens. The Director of Planning shall be responsible for ensuring that the responses are forwarded to the appropriate citizens within 30 calendar days after the meeting. (source: Subdivision Regulations for Harford County, Maryland )”
When a developer submits a preliminary/site plan to DAC, the developer must also submit a traffic study; the submission must be made to the county 30 days before the DAC meeting. Traffic studies are available for public viewing.
When determining traffic levels generated by proposed development, current traffic is counted at affected intersections along with traffic expected from approved projects that are in development (i.e. the firehouse at Patterson Mill Rd) plus additional traffic expected from the proposed development.
The time of day that current traffic counts were taken by the developer will be noted in the study. Representatives at the Wal-Mart Community Input Meeting Thursday said that the county required weekday and Saturday traffic counts to be taken. Projected trip generation from a proposed development is based on its use and size, in accordance with the Institute of Transportation Engineers Trip Generation Manual.
At any of the intersections studied, if all of the above traffic will reduce service to unacceptable levels, based on established Level of Service standards, P&Z can require mitigation by the developer in accordance with established state and local standards. Mitigation could include signal modifications and/or additional turn lanes along a roadway such as Rt. 924.
DAC makes recommendations to P&Z, which makes the final decision to approve preliminary/site plans. Preliminary/site plan approval is good for two years and represents the go-ahead from the county for the developer to execute plans as approved.
Appeals of Planning and Zoning decisions may be made in Circuit Court by the developer or by interested persons whose property is affected, as outlined in the following section from Harford County’s Subdivision Regulations:
§ 268-28. Appeals.
A. Any interested person whose property is effected by any decision of the Director of Planning, may within 30 calendar days after the filing of such decision, appeal to the Circuit Court for Harford County. Upon the hearing of such appeal, the decision of the Director of Planning shall be presumed by the Court to be proper and to best serve the public interest. The burden of proof shall be upon the appellant, or appellants, to show that the decision complained of was illegal. The said Court shall have the power to affirm, modify or reverse in part or in whole any decision appealed from and may remand any case for the entering of a proper order or for further proceedings, as the Court shall determine.
B. An appeal may be taken to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland from any decision of the Circuit Court for Harford County.
Concept Plan Map