The Harford County Council is considering legislation affecting big box stores that could potentially allow the Council to reject the proposed Bel Air Wal-Mart on the grounds that it would adversely affect public welfare, as hundreds of area residents have claimed.
Wal-Mart officials say it is unclear whether the law would apply to the proposed Bel Air Superstore. However, Pete Gutwald, director of planning and zoning said on Friday that the law, if passed, would cover the Wal-Mart proposal unless the company’s site plan is approved by his department before the law takes effect.
In September, Wal-Mart proposed building a Supercenter on an undeveloped parcel that is zoned for business near the intersection of Plumtree Rd. and MD 924. The plan sparked angry protests from hundreds of area residents who said that the store would add to existing traffic hazards and should not be built so close to homes and schools.
Although the County Council isn’t currently responsible for approving big box projects – that power rests with Planning and Zoning – the Council entered the fray in October, raising concerns about public safety in the area of the proposed Bel Air store. The Council asked the State Highway Administration to deny access from MD 924 to the proposed store, citing “the unsafe conditions it would create for the surrounding community.”
The new legislation sponsored Tuesday by four of the seven County Council members would change the approval process for proposed business district projects, such as the Bel Air Wal-Mart, that are 75,000 sq.ft. or larger.
First, the law would subject the projects to the development standards for Integrated Community Shopping Centers, which address site design, vehicular circulation, and other issues. The law would also newly subject the projects to approval by the County Council, acting as the Board of Appeals, under existing “Design Standards for Special Developments.” Gutwald clarified on Friday that under the law, the location of the large projects on a particular parcel would be subject to Council approval, as is currently the case with Integrated Community Shopping Centers (ICSC).
The law could be a game-changer for big box stores in Harford County, not only because of the added ICSC requirements, but also because the Board of Appeals operates under general guidelines that allow it to reject projects, or apply certain conditions, based on its findings.
Notably, the section of the Harford County Zoning Code governing the Board of Appeals, and cited in the legislation, appears to allow for rejection of a proposed development if the Board finds it would create dangerous traffic conditions, or otherwise adversely affect public safety and welfare. Section 267-9 (Board of Appeals), subsection I entitled “Limitations, guidelines and standards” reads, in part:
“I. Limitations, guidelines and standards. In addition to the specific standards, guidelines and criteria described in this Part 1 and other relevant considerations, the Board shall be guided by the following general considerations. Notwithstanding any of the provisions of this Part 1, the Board shall not approve an application if it finds that the proposed building, addition, extension of building or use, use or change of use would adversely affect the public health, safety and general welfare or would result in dangerous traffic conditions or jeopardize the lives or property of people living in the neighborhood, Natural Resource District, Chesapeake Bay Critical Area or is protected by a permanent easement. The Board may impose conditions or limitations on any approval…”
If the County Council passes the bill introduced Tuesday, the Bel Air Wal-Mart proposal could avoid falling under its provisions, according to Gutwald, if the company’s site plan is approved by Planning and Zoning before the law takes effect. In that case, Gutwald said that the project would be grandfathered under existing law, which calls for approval by the Department after the company meets the requirements under the parcel’s “B3” business zoning designation.
Gutwald said that Planning and Zoning has been reviewing Wal-Mart’s proposal, but as of Friday the company’s submissions were incomplete and issues remained with some of the submitted plans. Specifically, he said that the county was awaiting traffic mitigation plans for certain intersections and the Forest Conservation Plan was unresolved. When asked whether he thought the company would be able to submit a complete and acceptable plan to his department in the approximately 90 days before the law might take effect, Gutwald said anything was possible but “It would be tough.”
In response to questions from The Dagger, Steven Restivo, Senior Director of Communications at Walmart, issued the following statement on Friday:
“While we are still determining if this action specifically impacts our Bel Air plans, we think legislation that sets up arbitrary hurdles for development and discriminates against business based solely on size is misplaced. Instead, we encourage the Harford County Council to evaluate policies that encourage job creation, spurs economic development and expands affordable shopping options for residents.”
Harford County Councilman James “Capt’n Jim” McMahan represents the Bel Air district and proposed the bill, which he said, in a written statement prior to the bill’s introduction, would not affect the property at Plumtree Rd. and MD 924 where the Wal-Mart store is proposed. Instead, he wrote that the bill would “preclude such outlandish development in the future at other sites.” In response to questions from The Dagger on Friday, McMahan declined to comment on the possible impact on Wal-Mart, but reiterated that his intent was to address safety and other issues related to future infill development.
Leading the community opposition to the Bel Air Wal-Mart is area resident Steve Tobia, who has held a number of roadside rallies, complete with red “No Bel Air Walmart” placards, near the Abingdon (Constant Friendship) Wal-Mart. His group is urging the company to expand at the Abingdon location rather than build in Bel Air and plans another such rally on April 6th from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Although he said he didn’t know for sure what the impact would be on Wal-Mart, he said in reaction to the legislation, “Everybody is really happy.”
Below is a copy of Bill 13-16. A hearing is set for April 16 at 7:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers located at 212 S. Bond Street in Bel Air.