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.
Debbie and Mark Harrison, who live across from the county's Cedar Lane Regional Park southeast of Bel Air, said after the meeting that they have been troubled for a couple of years by very bright lights and noise coming from the park.
They said the park has "high-intensity, stadium lights," which is not what was expected.
"How do you get stadium lights at a park?" Debbie Harrison said, adding: 'That park will have visitors come in at 6:30 a.m. and there is screaming and activity all day long."
She said the park was originally going to have 500 parking spaces, but after plans were scrapped for a school on the property, it was increased to 1,000 spaces.
"That was a huge concern. They promised us over and over again those 1,000 parking spaces would never be filled at one time," she said.
But, she said, "not only do they fill the 1,000 spaces, cars are parked on the field."
She said County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti has tried to help them but the county does not seem willing to do anything.
"The response is, it only affects a certain amount of people and it's a benefit to the whole county because it brings in $20 million for the county," she said.
Mark Harrison said an employee came out to look at the lights, but said the county does not have a way to measure their intensity.
Debbie Harrison said there are not many neighbors around the park but those who do live there are not happy.
"People on [Route] 543 have it so rough," she said, referring to the road that backs up to the park, which has been aggressively marketed as place for major regional soccer tournaments and similar events.