Editorial: Decision over Bel Air Walmart already made

Despite the strenuous objections of the many people who have turned out to protest plans by Walmart to open a store at the southern end of the Bel Air area only about two miles from the retail giant's Abingdon location, there is really nothing to argue about. The property where the store is proposed either has the appropriate zoning, in which case a the necessary construction permits should be granted in short order, or it doesn't have the appropriate zoning, in which case Walmart shouldn't even be asking for permission.

As it stands, the parcel where the 170,000-square-foot Walmart is proposed is zoned for high density business, an upgrade from high density residential that was made in 2009 after a series of public hearings on a countywide rezoning plan. Sure, the land in question is wooded today, but it is in the heart of Harford County's main development area, called the Development Envelope, so the chances of it remaining wooded were all but nonexistent. If not a Walmart, then something was going to end up there. If the zoning hadn't been changed, that something may well have been an apartment complex or a retirement community.

Chief among the complaints voiced by those opposed to the proposed Walmart are concerns about increased traffic akin to what plagues the area near the Abingdon Walmart a short distance away. No doubt, new development, be it a major store like Walmart or a more varied shopping center of some other stripe, will bring new traffic to the area, but the land use decision to allow business uses on the land was made, subject to public scrutiny, in 2009. The land use decision that put the land in the heart of the county's development area with a high intensity zoning designation was made decades before that. One way or another, traffic is going to increase when (not if) the parcel is developed.

A key reality of traffic situation is worth noting, that traffic problems near the existing Walmart do not result from the Abingdon Walmart alone. Constant Friendship Boulevard was predicted to be a traffic nightmare back in the late 1980s before it even had a name, but when a major shopping complex was proposed off Tollgate Road in the area. The project was first envisioned as an "outlet mall," a vision that would eventually fade, even as the territory gave rise to half a dozen major retailers, as well as smaller businesses, restaurants, a Cineplex and a miniature golf and arcade operation. For these businesses to be successful, thousands of cars must get into and out of the area, and the only way to do that is through the intersection of Tollgate Road and Constant Friendship Boulevard. Regardless of what happens to the Abingdon Walmart (and there's every reason to believe it will close when the new one opens) that area will remain congested, even as existing traffic problems in the Plumtree area where the new Walmart is going will get worse. All the traffic at Constant Friendship and Tollgate, however, will not end up snarling the roadways around the new Walmart.

It has come to pass in the past few weeks that local elected officials have taken stands against the proposed Plumtree Walmart, which is a little bit like finding a crowd, getting in front of it and calling it a parade. All of these people were in office when the 2009 zoning change was made and were therefore in a position to have done something then to stop what's happening now. Similarly, they have been in office long enough to have done a lot more to alleviate the frustrating traffic problems that have long plagued the Abingdon and southern Bel Air area.

One suggestion that has come out of all this from County Executive David Craig is that Walmart might want to consider expanding its Abingdon location from its 130,000 square feet to the 170,000 square feet proposed at Plumtree, clearing the way for a grocery component for that area's Walmart without building at the new location. It's a reasonable suggestion, but the reality of the situation is, if Walmart wants to build a new store and close an old one, it should be allowed to do so because that's what the law says is allowed on the Plumtree area land.

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