Waving the now familiar “NO BEL AIR WALMART” signs, scores of protesters lined the roadway near the site of a proposed Bel Air Supercenter on Saturday, as organizers gathered signatures opposing the store. Protesters said that the Supercenter would increase traffic congestion and crime in the area, and hurt local businesses.
Wal-Mart announced in July plans to close its Abindgon store and open a new Supercenter on an undeveloped parcel near the intersection of Plumtree Road and MD 924 in Bel Air. The Supercenter is proposed to include an automotive center, pharmacy with drive-thru, groceries (with a separate market entrance) and garden center.
The Saturday protest along MD 924 was the latest in a series of demonstrations organized by the Bel Air South Community Foundation, a group formed by area residents against the store. As he handed out yard signs and bumper stickers, Steve Tobia, a volunteer with the group, said that the latest demonstration was intended to show the depth of community opposition. He said that a canvass of local neighborhoods found that 85% of respondents did not want the store in the area.
While he acknowledged that Wal-Mart had some outspoken supporters, Tobia said that opponents have an email distribution list of 1,800, and 3,000 signatures thus far on a petition that reads, in part:
“…I believe that a Walmart Super Center will add significant traffic congestion and have a negative financial impact and an increased rate of crime in and around residential properties in the 56 communities along the 924 corridor. A store who’s policy is to allow travelers and campers to stay overnight for free does not belong in close proximity to schools and residences.”
Echoing some of those themes on Saturday were protesters Richard and Kayleen Saucier, who have lived in the nearby Bright Oaks residential development for 26 years. The pair said that they were also concerned that increased traffic would slow emergency vehicles in the area, and that the new store would drive some in the Festival at Bel Air out of business.
Rather than build in Bel Air, Tobia said that the group has urged Wal-Mart to expand the Abingdon store. Wal-Mart representatives have said that the Abingdon property will not accommodate the Supercenter that they want to build.
The site of the proposed Bel Air Supercenter is zoned for business, paving the way for the store to be built once the regulatory requirements for new developments are met. Among those requirements is a traffic study showing how the company will acceptably mitigate traffic at certain nearby intersections.
After rejecting the company’s initial traffic study in October, the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning requested a revised study, which the company said at the time it planned to provide. However, the revised study had not been received by the department as of late last week, according to Shane Grimm, a senior department official.
By proceeding with plans for the Bel Air store, Tobia said the company was saying, “screw the community; this is what we’re doing.” He said that the protests would continue with plans to attend the next county council meeting on January 15th.