About 150 people gathered along both sides of Constant Friendship Boulevard in Abingdon Saturday to protest Walmart's plans to close its store in Abingdon and open a larger store with a grocery section just a few miles up the road in the Bel Air South area.
Community groups have been holding rallies since last fall, protesting the proposal over concerns about increased traffic around neighborhood homes and schools along the Route 924 (Emmorton Road) corridor.
Saturday's protest lasted for three hours.
"I just wanted to come out, support the cause," Steve Dann, who lives near Patterson Mill High School, said. "I don't want the high traffic in the area. It's hectic without [the additional traffic], I can't imagine 10,000 more cars a day."
The Arkansas-based retailer submitted plans last summer to Harford County planning and zoning officials to build a nearly 168,000-square-foot store on 17 acres in Bel Air South. It would be almost 73,000 square feet larger than the existing store off Constant Friendship, which would be closed.
Walmart officials plan to add a grocery section to the new store, which would be built on open land south of Plumtree Road between Route 24 and Route 924.
"Walmart is working with local and state officials to alleviate concerns that have been raised about traffic at the proposed location for our new store," company spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg wrote in an e-mail Monday.
Community groups in the Abingdon and Bel Air South areas have protested the plans, however, citing the increased traffic it would bring to an area which includes a large number of residential properties, as well as Patterson Mill Middle and High School.
Henneberg stated the location in Bel Air South "was zoned by the county years ago for exactly the kind of commercial activity Walmart would generate."
Saturday's protesters, many of whom live around Emmorton Road, carried signs stating "No Bel Air Walmart" and "Expand the Constant Friendship Walmart."
Traffic during the midday protest was steady along Constant Friendship Boulevard, and many drivers honked their horns and waved in support.
Debbie Adams said she wished more people had come, "but it heartens me to see people come out on a Saturday, when everybody is really busy, to make a statement."
Deanna Paul, who, like many attendees of the rally, lives near the proposed building site off Emmorton Road, came with her children, Lindsey, 10, and Connor, 8.
"We live off of 924, which has a lot of traffic already," she said. "It's a safety issue."
Lindsey, who said she would normally be playing outside on a Saturday, expressed concerns for the animals who call the land home.
"The animals might be put in danger because their habitats would be taken down," she said.
Residents who are against the Bel Air South Walmart have petitioned the company to expand its Constant Friendship store and place the grocery section there.
Steve Tobia, a member of the Bel Air South Community Foundation and an organizer of Saturday's rally, said the existing location serves residents of Abingdon, Bel Air South, Edgewood and Joppatowne.
"This could really be a win-win situation in our eyes... Walmart could win by expanding their Constant Friendship store with a grocery section, and that way they could serve four communities," Tobia said.
Abingdon resident Diane Davis, who lives off Laurel Bush Road, raised concerns about the traffic on Route 924, the potential impact of having an empty retail establishment at Constant Friendship, whether the expansion would bring enough full-time jobs to the community, the safety of students walking to and from school, and the impact of building the new Walmart among other developments slated for the area, such as housing on land across Route 24 and a proposed MedStar facility off Route 924.
"I take it to heart, being born and raised here [in Harford County]," Davis said. "I think the county needs to pay more attention to the totality of the county."
The Harford County Council recently introduced a bill that would require any retail development larger than 75,000 square feet to go through the zoning appeals process, which requires public hearings and more stringent approvals than what such commercial developments face.
It was sponsored by four of seven council members, including Council President Billy Boniface, Jim McMahan, Dion Guthrie and Joe Woods.
Guthrie told The Aegis the legislation was "absolutely" a response to the Walmart proposal.
A public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. on April 16 in the county council chambers at 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air.
Scott DeLong, Patrick Wilson and Tom Davis carried signs Saturday reading "Expand This Walmart," "Pass Bill 13-16" and "Expand Constant Friendship Walmart," respectively.
"I think we just keep building up community opposition, and at some point we hope Walmart will feel it's just easier to expand than go where they're not wanted," Tobia said.
Tobia said he obtained the crowd figure of roughly 150, based on the number of signs given out – about 125 – and adding some people came later and took the place of those who left.
"We believe these protests do not reflect the strong community support for a new store that will generate jobs and a new, convenient shopping option for affordable food and other merchandise," Henneberg said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun