Walmart planned south of Bel Air causing citizen alarm, councilman says

Some Harford County officials may have been reluctant to talk about a Walmart coming to the Emmorton area south of Bel Air when the subject first came up more than a year ago, but the developer of the site off Route 924 and Plumtree Road is moving forward with the project regardless.

The councilman who represents the area where the store could be built says residents are alarmed at the plan and the prospect of more gridlock in a heavily traveled corridor that includes the local high school. In addition to the Walmart, another developer is trying to secure approval from the county to build apartments at Route 24 and Plumtree Road.

Legal notices were published in The Aegis last week announcing a community input meeting "for a proposed Walmart and other commercial uses" on 33.7 acres on the southwest side of the intersection of Route 924 and Plumtree Road.

The input meeting will be held on July 19 at the Patterson Mill High School auditorium from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Despite the legal notices being published, the county had not posted the meeting on its own website as of 5 p.m. Monday.

According to the legal notice, "the purpose of this meeting is for the applicant to provide information to the community regarding the proposed commercial development (including draft plans for the site layout) and to allow citizens to ask questions and make comments and suggestions."

Although developers haven't officially informed the county of the input meeting, Harford County Director of Planning and Zoning Pete Gutwald said they have until Thursday — two weeks before the meeting.

"There's been a lot of outreach, from my understanding, on their part," Gutwald said. He added that letters have been sent to surrounding property owners and meeting notices must be posted at every public access road.

Harford County Councilman Jim McMahan, who represents the greater Bel Air area, says residents have voiced their opposition to the plan since it originally came up more than a year ago.

"Citizens are not happy at all," McMahan said Tuesday. "Primarily for the fact that it will create incredible [traffic] congestion."

The councilman said residents "do not see a good reason as to why Walmart wants to put that store so close to the existing store down in Abingdon and the new store in Fallston."

McMahan said he has no official knowledge, but is "led to believe by various sources that the Abingdon store would close" rather than have two locations within two miles of each other.

"The citizens are just very confused as to why Walmart would want to concentrate such a major store, a major outlet like that in such an already overcrowded area where this is just tremendous congestion," he continued. "The roads there are not conducive to handling any volume of traffic whatsoever."

McMahan gave the example of the newly opened Sonic on Route 924 near Plumtree Road.

"When Sonic opened, they [the community] had gridlock for the first two weeks it was open," he said.

In the spring of 2011, as the county was planning for its latest Master Land Use Plan update, planning and zoning and other administration officials refused to discuss the possibility of a Walmart coming to the Plumtree site, saying there had been no plan submitted or any discussions with Walmart. They stonewalled members of the public who said they were concerned about the impact such a project would have on traffic and the surrounding area.

Walmart at the time also declined to say if it was interested in the Plumtree site or if it was considering moving north and closing its store at Route 24 and I-95, less than two miles away from the Plumtree site.

McMahan stressed the importance of residents attending the input meeting July 19.

"This is their opportunity to come out, see what is planned and voice their concerns," he said.

He also mentioned the unofficial talk of the current store in Abingdon not being able to expand to include a full grocery section, like many other Walmarts, may be a factor for the potential move or additional store in Bel Air.

"I have been told, again not by the direct parties in question but by folks who have looked into this, there is evidently some kind of covenant from the landlord that was put in affect that prohibits Walmart at that location from selling large scale bulk groceries, and that's what they want to expand into," McMahan said. "I wonder why Walmart and the landlord can't work something out."

A call to Bowman Consulting, which was listed as the contact in the legal notice, was not returned, nor was a request for comment sent to Walmart's corporate office.

According to county and state tax records, the 33-acre site is owned by Evergreen Business Trust. All but three acres of the property were zoned R-3 high density residential until 2009, when the entire site was comprehensively rezoned to B-3 business by the Harford County Council, as part of a countywide review of zoning. A contract purchaser of the site requested the change, and there was some public opposition to making it, many people believing at the time that the property was being eyed by Wegmans, which did eventually build a store farther south on Route 24 near the existing Walmart.

Despite the other concerns from the public about Walmart moving to Plumtree, the land use plan update that the county council eventually passed earlier this year had no impact on the site being developed for a Walmart or any other large commercial building.

Although the site is entirely wooded, it is surrounded by high density commercial development on three sides, while Route 24 serves as a divider on the west side.

Across Route 24, another developer is trying to secure county approval to construct 198 apartment units on another Evergreen Trust site bounded by Route 24, Plumtree Road and the planned extension of Tollgate Road.

According to the Harford County website and a zoning notice posted on the site, Peake Management LLC (listed as "Park" Management LLC on the zoning notice), contract purchaser of the property, is seeking a planned residential development, which requires board of appeals approval. The site has mixed residential zoning.

A hearing on the apartment zoning request is scheduled for Aug. 29 at 6:30 p.m. in the county council chamber at 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air.

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