Maryland has 48 Walmarts, and the chain is planning more.

Nationally, "Walmart has been on a very big expansion kick for about the last three years," said supermarket analyst David J. Livingston of DJL Research.

The company has eight projects in the planning and approval process, including the Bel Air site, Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz said in a statement. Three of the projects are new supercenters, while the other five are expansions or relocations.

This year, the retailer has built new supercenters in Denton and in Randallstown. In Ellicott City, Walmart expanded an older store into a supercenter, its sixth expansion in Maryland this year.

"These expansions have been very popular with customers, who enjoy the convenience of one-stop shopping and better access to fresh produce and other groceries at affordable prices," Wertz said.

Many welcomed the Randallstown store, which opened in October. Residents and Baltimore County officials hope the store will attract restaurants and new retailers to the aging Liberty Road corridor.

"Baltimore has a pretty strong local market," said Jeff Mayhew, the county's head of community planning. "But when a Walmart, a national chain, comes in, it's a recognition that the local market is strong and the national folks think they can provide a service and make some money, along with providing a job."

In contrast, the possible relocation of another Baltimore County Walmart at the Carroll Island Shopping Center has stirred controversy.

Walmart is eyeing the nearby Middle River Depot — a vacant site recently zoned for redevelopment — to open a supercenter. That prompted the owner of the shopping center where Walmart is now, the Cordish Cos., to help fund a contentious referendum drive to challenge the zoning votes that would allow the depot redevelopment.

In the city's Remington neighborhood, plans for a Walmart drew community opposition. The project was approved by the City Council, but critics filed a lawsuit. The company still hopes to move forward, Wertz said.

In Bel Air, a top concern is traffic. There are grocery stores, fast food restaurants, drug stores and other retailers along the road from the current Walmart to the proposed new site at Plumtree Road and Route 924, now an empty lot filled with trees and brush.

The Harford County Council passed a resolution asking the State Highway Administration to deny access to Route 924. Local officials also tried to convince Walmart to expand its Abingdon location rather than move.

"People in general that I've spoken to are not anti-Walmart," said Councilman Jim McMahan, who sponsored the resolution and believes it's a public safety issue because two schools and a new firehouse are located near the proposed Bel Air Walmart site. "But with what they have seen of the design and the breadth and scope of it, they simply do not feel that it is the proper fit for the location."

Abingdon resident Steve Tobia said many residents there want the store to stay put. "They are located in a great position. They can serve more communities right where they are."

Wertz said the company plans to work with state transportation officials and will spend $3 million on traffic improvements. "We have a common interest with the Bel Air community ... in avoiding traffic bottlenecks," Wertz said.

People are worried, too, about effects on local business, increased crime, and the vacant storefront that Walmart would leave in Abingdon, said Bel Air resident Kathy Dunkleberger.

Despite the roadblocks, Walmart is expected to continue aggressively pursue growth, retail experts say, especially as competitors have suffered in the down economy.

"They don't ever rest," said Fishman, the author. "They are not ever satisfied. And as an example of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship, you can admire that. … But in a company the scale and impact of Walmart, that can look less like innovation and more like relentless competitive battering."

alisonk@baltsun.com

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