A bill introduced before the Harford County Council Tuesday could derail, or at least delay considerably, Walmart's plans to build a store just south of Bel Air.
Bill 13-16 would require more zoning regulations for "general merchandise and shoppers merchandise" buildings that are larger than 75,000 square feet and require approval from the board of appeals, the latter a lengthy process that ultimately involves the county council.
The legislation, sponsored by four of the seven council members – Jim McMahan, Dion Guthrie, Joe Woods and Council President Billy Boniface – has been introduced at a time when Walmart is seeking county approvals for a new store planned at the intersection of Route 924 and Plumtree Road in the Bel Air South community.
A public hearing for the Bill 13-16 is set for April 16 at 7 p.m. in the county council's chambers at 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air.
Many residents of the area have been protesting against Walmart's plans since they first surfaced in detail last spring. The company wants to build a 186,000-square-foot store on about 17 acres, which carries the requisite B3 zoning for a retail building that size. The company plans to close an existing, smaller store in the Constant Friendship community in Abingdon, barely two miles from the new store site.
The legislation, which will have a public hearing next month, could affect Walmart because the store just submitted revised site plans a couple of weeks ago that have yet to be approved by the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning.
The company's forest conservation and traffic study plans remain under review, Shane Grimm, the department's chief of plans review, said Thursday.
Boniface identified McMahan as the main sponsor. McMahan was not immediately available for comment, but in the past he has spoken out publicly against Walmart's plans at Bel Air South and suggested the council could take some sort of legislative approach to derail the project.
Guthrie said the legislation is "absolutely" in response to Walmart's controversial plans to build on site on Plumtree Road and Route 924.
"The reason for it is to try and get a hold of anything in the future, when these big-box stores want to build something in excess of 75,000 square feet, they are going to have to jump through some hoops," the councilman said.
He noted that such buildings in the B3 zone don't currently have a size limit.
He said the bill does not change the zoning, "it just changes how it is applied."
He also does not think passage of the legislation would necessarily force Walmart to build a smaller store.
"It's a possibility, but it depends on where they are. It might have to jump through some more hoops," he said. "It will depend on where Walmart is in the process, and if this bill is voted into law."
Harry Hammel, with Sandy Hillman Communications, a firm that has represented Walmart during the Bel Air store controversy, said Thursday afternoon he could not comment on the legislation and would try to reach someone from Walmart. No return call had been received by 6:30 p.m.
Boniface declined to comment on the bill, citing his policy about speaking on legislation before it goes through the public hearing process.
He only said the bill is about "looking at the big-box stores going into residential neighborhoods."
Steve Tobia, who is with the Bel Air South Community Foundation and has been an active opponent of the proposed Walmart, tried to speak at Tuesday's council meeting, but Boniface told him residents could not speak on specific bills until the official public hearing.
Tobia said his comments were not aimed at this specific bill, but at zoning "in general."
"This is a bold move," Tobia told the council.
According to the legislation, what are referred to as "general merchandise and shoppers merchandise structures" exceeding 75,000 square feet would be required to be developed "shall be subject to [board of appeals] approval" in accordance with special design standards, such as lighting, landscaping, screening for adjacent properties and noise and traffic ingress and egress.
The approval process for the so-called big box store would be similar to the one the county has used for decades for developments known as "integrated community shopping centers," typically buildings with more than three separate retail uses under the same roof, as in the case of a strip shopping center. That review process, which involves public hearings and in which the council has the final say as the board of appeals, can take months to years complete, depending on public involvement, opposition and the potential for litigation of the outcome at the county level.