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Editorial: Effort to stop Walmart is disingenuous

Editorial from The Aegis

5:45 PM EDT, September 27, 2012

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It seems a bit strange that some people, who have had their say in shaping land use policy in Harford County, in general, and at the site in Bel Air, where corporate giant Walmart plans to build a replacement for its Abingdon store, are trying so hard to re-shape land use policy to prevent the Walmart move.

Speaking earlier this week at a meeting of the Abingdon Community Council, County Councilman Joe Woods said he is working on a plan to stop Walmart from building on the Route 924 site it has set its sights on. Among the few comments he made on his plan to stop Walmart: "But, I don't even know if it's legal."

Similarly, Councilman Dion Guthrie has unveiled a plan that would involve denying Walmart access to Route 924 from the site of the proposed store, a plan he also revealed Monday to the Abingdon Community Council.

In previous settings, County Councilman Jim McMahan has expressed similar opposition. Furthermore, Harford County Executive David R. Craig has spoken against allowing the new Abingdon Walmart to be built at the Route 924 site in Abingdon.

At this juncture in the planning process, it appears, however, that Walmart is well within its rights under the law to build the new store and move its operation away from the congested Constant Friendship Boulevard shopping district.

Speaking on the apparent lack of authority the county's elected officials have to stop the Walmart plan from moving ahead, Cynthia Hergenhahn, chair of the Abingdon Community Council, asked the rhetorical question: "If the county council can't change it, and the county executive can't change it, who can?"

Ms. Hergenhahn's question seems like a revelation about the relative powerlessness of local elected officials over local land use policy, but the reality is the same county officials who now decry Walmart's plan to build a replacement store in Bel Air are among those who made Walmart's plan possible.

Craig was county executive, and Woods, McMahan and Guthrie were all on the county council when the county government last updated the county's zoning maps. That update, not coincidentally, included changes to the zoning of the parcel where Walmart is planning to build. In this instance, a substantial portion of the property had been zoned for apartments, and there was a community outcry, albeit not as loud, to have that changed. The balance of the property was zoned for intensive commercial uses (like a proposed, but ill-fated Avenue at Bel Air, or the current Walmart offering), and there was community sentiment to go with zoning the whole property for commercial uses.

So the county council and county executive can't stop Walmart, but they were presiding over the process when the zoning changes that allowed it to be built there were approved, with members of the community cheering, at least figuratively speaking.

No doubt the public outcry over plans for the Route 924 Walmart has given the elected officials who cleared the way for the project reason to reconsider and express opposition to it.

In light of all this, the question becomes: If it was action by the county council and the county executive in approving zoning for the property that made the new Walmart possible, why can't the same county council and county executive simply act to change the zoning and block the new Walmart?

The short answer is that the council may well do just that.

The longer answer is if a government could act to block or facilitate every building proposal for every piece of land, then there would be no need for zoning. There also would be no need to go the trouble and expense of owning property in the first place. If a government can act to allow, or disallow, a project based on the politics of the moment, then the government, not the deed holder, determines the fate of the property in question. Determining the fate of a property is, to a large degree, a key benefit of property ownership.

Zoning laws constitute one of those governmental checks to ensure one person's property rights don't degrade the property rights of a neighbor by, for example, not allowing lead smelting factories in residential neighborhoods. It's kind of like the right of free speech being limited by laws that protect people from false and defamatory statements made by others.

Once the zoning classifications are established for a parcel, and the property owner makes an arrangement that's in keeping with those zoning laws, it begins to upset the balance of rights if the government then injects itself into the process to change the law.

It remains to be seen if the public outcry and pressure from elected officials will be successful in stopping Walmart from building at the Route 924 site. There is a principle in zoning law that provides for recognizing mistakes made when a particular classification was assigned to a particular property, though it's usually used by those seeking to build, rather than those seeking to block a building. Moreover, it'll be hard to make that argument considering the parcel in question was subject to a fair amount of public debate during the process.

The elected officials who have come out against the Walmart plan may well end up claiming a mistake was made at the Route 924 site during the last comprehensive rezoning process. It would probably be more accurate, however, were they to acknowledge that no one cared about what could have been built under the zoning approved. Only when a particular project was proposed did anyone object in a meaningful way.