Residents stand along Constant Friendship Boulevard in Abingdon Saturday, protesting a plan by Walmart to close the store behind them and build a larger facility in Bel Air South. (Video by David Anderson/Baltimore Sun Video)

Members of the controlled growth advocacy group Friends of Harford, as well as one Harford County Council member, say Walmart's controversial plan to build a store in Bel Air South should not have surprised anyone.

"If you read the zoning code, you would realize you can have a Walmart in B2 [zoning], folks," Friends of Harford president Morita Bruce said during the group's annual meeting, held Sunday afternoon at the Liriodendron mansion in Bel Air.

The proposed Walmart site is zoned B3, which allows for higher-density business zoning. Bruce was making the point that even a lower zoning classification would have permitted the store.

Bruce said she spoke during a public meeting last year about why the store can be built at Plumtree and Route 924. Hundreds of "upset, angry people," as well as a number of county council members, did not seem to understand how the zoning process worked, she said.

"I thought there was going to be a riot," she recalled. "A lot of people on the county council claimed to be surprised that you could have Walmart or any other big-box store on B3 [land]."

"Until we get hit on the head, I don't think zoning is something a lot of us know about or care about," Bruce added.

Sally LaBarre, a board member, also said Friends of Harford was not surprised when Walmart came out with its plans ."We knew that," she said about the store.

Councilman Dion Guthrie, who was the only government official to attend the annual meeting, said area residents essentially brought upon themselves the zoning change that allowed Walmart.

"The Walmart property was zoned B3 and R4," he said. "Hundreds of citizens came to us at the last [comprehensive rezoning] and requested to remove the R4 and make it all B3 because they were scared to death."

He said residents were worried about "intense" residential construction at the site, namely townhouses and that "the schools would be flooded with kids."

"Not one single person, not one single [phone] call, was opposed to that change," Guthrie said about that rezoning the site to B3.

Affecting the zoning process

During Sunday's meeting, Val Twanmoh, a former county people's counsel and zoning hearing examiner, gave an overview of the development process, striking a chord with some attendees when she said only those directly adjacent to a certain property are technically considered "aggrieved" and are allowed to legally challenge a zoning decision.

Twanmoh also said it is important for people to remember that the plan a developer presents during a community input meeting is not necessarily what will be built. She advised residents not be turned off by threats that a less desirable project will be built if a certain development is stopped.

"The likelihood that the worst-case scenario is going to wind up on the property is fairly slim," she said.

Board member Al Sweatman asked whether someone who is not technically aggrieved can speak up on behalf of someone who is. Twanmoh replied they can't but said others are encouraged to support those who are aggrieved.

One woman asked whether someone who drives past the controversial property every day could be considered aggrieved. Twanmoh said they can not.

"You must be personally aggrieved on your property more than the general public," she said.

Lights at Cedar Lane Park

One couple agreed that the way a project is presented is not necessarily how it will turn out.