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Craig promises to work with Walmart to avoid Plumtree move

Harford's county executive says he'll do what he can to work with Walmart and hopefully avoid having a Walmart Supercenter built on Plumtree Road in Bel Air South.

The power, however, ultimately lies with several county agencies that will review plans once they are submitted to make sure all rules and regulations have been met.

"The planning and zoning department, water and sewer and the [State] Highway Administration review any plans that come through," Harford County Executive David Craig said Wednesday.

Craig released a statement through his office Tuesday afternoon that expressed his opposition to Walmart's proposed move from its location in Abingdon to the site between Routes 24 and 924.

"I have serious concerns regarding the proposed construction of a Walmart at the site discussed," the statement read. "It is in my opinion the wrong location and not characteristic of the smaller type of retail we had hoped would complement the existing community shopping centers in the area. But more importantly, I have serious concerns about how the proposed project will impact traffic and public safety."

On the phone Wednesday, Craig explained that the county met with Walmart representatives and told them the county doesn't want the move.

"It was revealed to us that there's a covenant on the property so you can't build a grocery store," Craig said, regarding the Abingdon site. "This prevents them from building a Super Walmart."

The county executive feels it's better to tear down the existing building and build a new one on the same site rather than move and leave an empty building. He added he would be willing to do what he can to change that covenant to allow a grocery section to be built.

In 2009, the proposed site was comprehensively rezoned from, what Craig recalls, B3, high density business, and R4, high density residential, to only B3.

"The people in the neighborhood wanted R4 removed," he said. Residents said they didn't want a large number of housing units, Craig continued, and "pushed" county council members to get rid of that zoning.

Craig pointed out that this was done by a previous county council.

When the zoning was changed to B3, Craig said he envisioned a shopping center or something similar would be built on the property, but nothing as large as a Walmart Supercenter. At that time, he added, a Walmart on that property "was not on the table."

Councilman Jim McMahan was part of the council that voted during the comprehensive re-zoning and remembers it being a unanimous decision.

He also attended the several public hearings that preceded the decision and remembers little to no opposition to the final document.

McMahan, who does not represent the district the proposed Walmart would be in, but several neighborhoods nearby, said the council and county executive don't have the power to approve or disapprove any business from building.

"The process is for an application to be made to the planning department," the councilman explained. Afterward, traffic studies are conducted and community input meetings are held.

Eventually, a transcript from the meeting is put up on the county's website for the public to view. The county reviews the application and community feedback, and site plans go through the Development Advisory Committee process, as well.

Where the county council could potentially come in, McMahan said, is if the project goes to the zoning appeals board.

"The county council is prohibited from making statements like that," he explained, "because we, the county council in Harford County, sits as the zoning appeal board and therefore, if any councilman made a statement like [Craig's], we would have to recuse ourselves from any vote that may come up on the situation."

As for Craig stating his opposition, McMahan said that is his prerogative.

McMahan said he was pleased with the turnout of the recent community input meeting that drew several hundred people, but wishes "there had been a bit more decorum."

"With everything being said, I realize that it was a very emotional issue," he said. "But things get done best when calm prevails and communication takes place."

Bel Air South resident Jeff Dinger said Thursday he doesn't know what to make of Craig's recent comments.

"I asked to speak with him yesterday [Wednesday] and they [the county] don't want to have everyone from the public [calling], so they're referring everyone to Pete Gutwald [director of planning and zoning]," Dinger said. He added that he hopes to get Craig's signature on a petition that has been going around the community.

Dinger, who lives in the East Valley Oaks community, is part of the Bel Air South Community Foundation.

While the organization has goals and priorities other than stopping Walmart, Dinger said, its most recent actions and discussions have been aimed toward the retail giant.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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