The following comments were presented by Bill Wehland to the Harford County Council on Tuesday, May 07, 2013. A copy was provided to The Dagger for publication:
I was truly disappointed and frustrated with this council relative to how Bill No. 13-16 was so poorly handled at the last council meeting on April 16th.
I sent an e-mail to each council member, the county executive and legal council the very next day trying to understand the process that took place. I only received a response from Mr. Woods and a short rude condescending response from Mr. Guthrie which I thought was completely inappropriate for an elected official.
Bill No. 13-16 was introduced and supported by Council Member McMahan, President Boniface, and Council Members Woods and Guthrie on March 19th. Although it could have been better explained as to its intended purpose the bill would have legally broadened the scope of regulations and approvals for General Merchandise Stores 75,000 square feet and over and Shoppers Merchandise Stores 75,000 square feet and over in business district B3. I thought this bill was going to be a stepping stone for further legislation to cap the size of stores in business districts and I supported it. Other progressive counties have done this and it is legal.
Although many citizens saw this bill as preventing or stopping Walmart from building, I did not believe it was possible. However, it would have required developers, including Walmart, to follow the same rules and procedures that exist for Integrated Community Shopping Centers, Planned Residential Developments, and Mobile Home Parks. The importance of it was to place final approval in the hands of the Board of Appeals and the County Council
Perhaps seeing the possibility of legal action by Walmart or other developers who had already submitted their plans, an amendment was proposed by council members Ms Mary Ann Lisanti and supported by council member Mr. Richard Slutzky to exempt all developments that had already been proposed or were in progress.
This amendment went to a quick vote along with some clean up amendments to the bill and was approved by five of the seven members; the negative votes were by President Boniface and Council Member McMahan.
This amendment automatically exempted Walmart and others who had submitted plans so there was no longer any fear of legal action by Walmart or other developers as to “changing the rules” in the middle of the game.
Here is the strange and bizarre part of the proceedings and the irresponsible action or inaction by members of this council.
Mr. McMahan makes a motion to approve Bill 13-16 as amended and not one of the other council members seconds the motion so it is declared dead by President Boniface because of no second. I simply could not believe it or understand why and I am not alone with those feelings after numerous discussions with other people. At least with a second it could have been discussed and rationale for it or against it explained to the public.
Miss Lisanti and Mr. Slutzky you both got what you wanted in an amendment so why didn’t one of you second the motion? Was there something else you were against and if so why not bring it up for discussion by seconding the motion? I was not sure where Mr. Schrodes stood on the bill or the amendments but suspected he was against it for unknown reasons.
Mr. Guthrie who also sponsored the bill was not really sure where he stood on the bill. First he was quoted as saying in the paper on March 22nd the legislation, i.e. Bill 13-16 was “absolutely” in response to Walmart’s controversial plans to build on Plumtree and Route 924 and it was to try and get a hold of any big box stores in the future wanting to build something in excess 75,000 square feet. He did not think passage of the legislation would necessarily force Walmart to build a smaller store but said it was a possibility but it depended on where Walmart was in the process. So Mr. Guthrie supports the bill but does not second the motion even with Walmart exempted from it. His rationale to me and others was “this legislation is feel good legislation” and he did not want to give the citizens a false sense of security which would have lasted a month.” Mr. Guthrie I do not believe there would have been any false sense of security by the citizens about Walmart. Five council members including you saw to that by the amendment exempting Walmart and other projects in process from the bill. I have no idea why you sponsored this legislation from the beginning other than maybe to make you look good in front of your constituents because you were also against the Walmart move. What messages are you are now sending to your citizens. Does it now give them a good feeling or sense of security? Far from it!
Mr. Woods I did appreciate your response to my E-mail. You initially were a supporter of this bill but indicated there were other projects in your district that could be delayed by this bill and could lose bank funding. I do not know what projects you were referring to. You also stated you normally do not second bills that you would vote no on and that you could not say why other members did not second the motion. You also made a statement that you did not understand why the bill was up for vote that night when the council normally holds off a week or so to give the member’s time to correct any issues or offer other amendments. You also said council members do not get amendments until just before the council meeting which makes it hard to know what you are all voting on. That does not sound like good business practice.
Mr. McMahan and Mr. Boniface I wish to thank you for trying to get the start of legislation that would lead to store size caps just like other county councils have done in Maryland and other states. They have even gone beyond 13-16 with lawful restrictions on building cap sizes. They have found that store size caps do prevent the many negative impacts of big box development, such as increased traffic congestion and over burdened public infrastructure.
It is a shame that this council cannot discuss and pass legislation that addresses and alleviates the major concerns of the citizens which are mainly traffic congestion, safety, and quality of life. Instead I see no team work among members and in many cases conflict and hostility between members that are to the detriment of the people’s welfare. It is apparent each member have their own self interests again to the detriment of the people.
At a January 15th Council Meeting I urged this council, and by letter to Mr. Alex Rawls Transportation Planner @ P & Z and Mr. Rich Zeller with the State Highway Administration, to do a comprehensive traffic study in lieu of looking at only individual sites and traffic created by that site. They claim they cannot do that by existing regulations.
There is a Harford County Traffic Volume Map published every year by the State Highway Administration that shows the annual Average Daily Traffic Count on Route 924, classified as a Minor Urban Arterial Road, being over 19,000 cars per day. The interchange of I-95 to 924, MD 24 and Tollgate Road is over 72,000 cars per day. MD 24 was built as a limited access highway to handle a total of 20,000 cars per day. It is currently at 41,000 cars per day with talk of making it three lanes in each direction. With the proposed Walmart on 924, the Medstar Health Center across the street, Evergreen Woods Apartments one block away, Enclave at Box Hill Apartments, Magness Farm Development, additions to Chesapeake Health Center and a future Arts & Cultural Center all within a 2 mile or less radius it does not take a rocket scientist or a good traffic engineer to figure out that 924 will not be capable of being expanded to handle average daily volumes of close to 3 times the present numbers. The State Highway Administration and the traffic planners of Harford county need to wake up and see that all the additional traffic will compromise the safety and intended functions of these portions of the state highway network.
I do not pretend to understand the initial traffic study and revisions submitted by the traffic engineers for Walmart but it is obvious they still have not complied with the request by the Planning and Zoning Department and State highway Administration for detailed mitigation plans at key intersections they had identified. As an example many of their responses are answered with the following statement for key intersections, “It is our professional opinion that the impact at this intersection generated by Walmart development will be minimal, and that this intersection should therefore be eliminated from the TIS pursuant to Article XV, Section 267-126B(3)(c)(2) of the Harford County Zoning Ordinance. Earlier responses were requests to approve the preliminary TIA and site plan and than they would show how they would mitigate traffic. Those type of responses should be found totally unacceptable and the traffic plan and site plan disapproved as it is becoming apparent traffic mitigation cannot be accomplished for 924.
I was pleased to see the Abingdon Community Council send all council members a well written letter on April 23, 2013 asking members of this council to do a better job examining the impacts of ill-managed growth. They provided you with the problems associated with the current process of examining individual projects and they suggested solutions by looking at the “big picture” common sense approach that brings together multiple projects in proximity to each other. They summed up their letter with these words “Please advise us on what immediate action can be taken and how we can work together to create ongoing comprehensive traffic studies and better planning and zoning codes for Harford County.” I applaud them and only wish you will listen to them, the other citizens and do something for the citizen’s benefits for a change and not the developer’s benefits.
Unfortunately, I now question the value and validity of having Community Input Meetings, Public Hearings, Development Advisory Committee Meetings and Council Meetings where the citizens are allowed to speak and their words and recommendations fall on the deaf ears of developers, planners, and yes council members. This whole process needs to be fixed as well. The citizens need better representation and you have a responsibility and opportunity as our elected officials to do something about it. Continue to explore store size caps as other counties have done and keep track of how the Planning and Zoning Department and State Highway Administration handle the Walmart traffic analysis report and responses.