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Abingdon Walmart moving a symptom of a bigger problem [Commentary]

Laws and LegislationWalmart

Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes and sets limits on Congress, includes the sentence: "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."

The language is arcane, but the meaning is relevant today.

A bill of attainder is a legislative action declaring someone guilty of a crime without the benefit of a trial. Similarly, an ex post facto law allows the outlawing of something that already has been done.

Though the language is a bit strange, that such acts aren't allowed seems very much a part of the fabric of the American sense of fair play.

Generally, the idea of declaring someone guilty by popular vote or act of legislation seems alien. Similarly, the notion of passing a law that is imposed after the fact of an action that had previously been allowed has the aroma of something that is unfair.

Exactly what constitutes an ex post facto, or after the fact, law is a matter for lawyers and courts to decide, but the latest action by the Harford County Council to block Walmart from moving its Abingdon store a few miles north to the Plumtree Road area of Bel Air certainly has the look of a law passed after the fact.

Specifically, it says retail stores larger than 75,000 square feet are obliged to go through the county's zoning appeals process – that is to say, appear before the county council or its appointed representative – before being approved. Now, plenty of retail stores already exist in Harford County on appropriately-zoned land that didn't have to go through that process, and the land where Walmart plans to build is appropriately zoned. Furthermore, the bill in question never would have been drafted, if not for the Walmart proposal.

Does that mean it meets the legal definition of a prohibited ex post facto law? Only time, and court action, will tell.

The problem has been decades in the making. When Walmart opened in Abingdon, it was welcomed with open arms, and it was the only store on the street that has come to be known as Constant Friendship Boulevard. These days, a more apt name for the road might be Constant Congestion Boulevard as the area it serves has become home to four stores in the 75,000-plus-square-foot range, as well as a multiplex movie theater and a dozen or so smaller businesses. It's a busy place and there's only one way in and out: the intersection of Constant Friendship Boulevard and Tollgate Road.

Another Constitutionally-protected right, the right to own and manage private property, no doubt was a driving force in how the Constant Friendship Boulevard traffic problem arose. The area has the look of a place that was developed to maximize retail and parking space by keeping roadway space to a minimum. As a result, getting a vehicle out of any of the parking lots onto Constant Friendship Boulevard can be a real challenge.

There's every reason to believe this problem was a key motivation for Walmart - the first business in - to become the first business to leave Constant Friendship for less congested environs. Not surprisingly, given the traffic mess at Constant Friendship, people at the proposed new Walmart location fear Constant Friendship style congestion.

The resulting political pressure has resulted in what is likely to end up being unsuccessful legislation to block the Walmart move.

Unfortunately, neither blocking Walmart's move - an effort that's likely to fail - or allowing it to move will address the congestion problem at Constant Friendship. And there's every reason to believe whatever ends up at Plumtree Road and Route 924 will add to congestion at that location.

Possibly a better tactic for the county council to follow would be one that addresses the Constant Friendship traffic problem that grew out of poor planning years back. Had the county demanded a better access road for such a massive shopping complex, a lot of this could have been avoided. At this point, options are relatively few. Perhaps a south-exit-only ramp to I-95 out of the Constant Friendship complex could be incorporated into the Route 24 interchange. A few traffic circles along the boulevard might help a little. A second exit could also do some good, but it's hard to see where such a new road could be built, considering how much of the territory is already developed.

Still, if something isn't done, Walmart's planned move is likely to be the first of many. The paradoxical quip "no one goes there anymore because it's too crowded," could result in the area losing appeal as a shopping district all too quickly. Then the problem becomes no one goes there because there's nothing there anymore.

At present, with or without its charter shopping center Walmart, Constant Friendship Boulevard is a vital retail area for Harford County, but one with a potentially devastating traffic congestion flaw. The county council would do well to turn its focus away from trying to handle the symptom of that flaw – the planned Walmart move – and focus instead on curing the flaw.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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