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Walmart bill's death a strange development [Editorial]

WalmartJohn G. Roberts, Jr.

A Harford County Council bill designed to block the proposed move of Walmart's Abingdon store about two miles to the north to a plot near the intersection of Route 924 and Plumtree Road came to strange end last week.

The bill, which initially seemed to have strong support as it was co-sponsored by four of the seven members of the county council, came up for action last week in a legislative session and died a procedural death. A motion for action on the legislation was made, even as dozens of people in favor of it were in attendance to monitor what promised to be tumultuous legislative session.

Then nothing. No one on the council acted to second the motion and that was that. As a procedural matter, under the much cited but rarely followed "Roberts Rules of Order," a motion that is brought up for consideration but fails to garner a second generally dies. Strictly speaking, the death for lack of a second applies to the motion, but not necessarily to the legislation. In other words, while the bill was declared dead because of procedure, in reality it remains alive under the charter for 45 days after introduction.

In this case, however, no second meant no discussion and no discussion meant no action.

Though the bill to block Walmart's move to the Plumtree Road – Bel Air South site from Abingdon had a substantial amount of public support, it seemed pretty clear from the start the county was going to have trouble preventing Walmart from making the move, even with the legislation. The council acted just a few years ago to set the zoning for the property in question to allow just such a thing as a Walmart store, an action taken at the behest of many of the same folks who are protesting the Walmart project. Previously, the property in question had been zoned for apartments.

After Walmart announced its intention to make the move — and the public and county officials saw no legal means at their disposal to block it – is when the zoning legislation that might have stopped, or at the very least seriously delayed the move, was drafted and introduced for consideration. A coincidence? Despite the protestations of some of the co-sponsors the legislation had noting to do with Walmart per se, we suspect differently.

Regardless of claimed motive, in general laws that are designed to prevent a specific individual from doing something anyone else would be allowed to do aren't allowed under the U.S. Constitution. This bill had the look of such an action.

While the county council seems to have wanted to appear it was taking a stand, it seems pretty clear a costly legal tangle with Walmart would have been the result of passing such legislation. There is reason to believe the county could have prevailed, but fear of an unpleasant courthouse fight and the prospects of facing political opposition funded by property rights activists may have dulled enthusiasm for the legislation in the end.

It appears the presumed procedural death of the bill to block Walmart – a death that appears to have more to do with politics than procedure - may have been seen as a way to make a low key exit from a nasty political predicament.

The question of whether either the introduction of the bill or the decision to let it die or both were the result of cynical political calculous or a naive attempt to do the right thing remains open to speculation on the part of those affected.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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