Residents of Bel Air South and their supporters lambasted members the Harford County Council earlier this week for not voting on a bill which the residents expected would stop Walmart from building a store in their community.
Bill 13-16, dubbed the "Walmart bill," was scheduled for a vote during the council's April 16 legislative session. Despite many passionate pleas to council members in support of the legislation from residents of Bel Air South and neighboring communities, other council members declined to second Councilman Jim McMahan's motion to enact the bill, effectively killing it.
"I think maybe we could have all saved some time if you had told us," Aravinda Pillalamarria, a Bel Air resident, told council members during the public comment period of Tuesday's meeting.
Pillalamarria was one of about 20 people who stood outside the council's Bond Street chambers in Bel Air before Tuesday's meeting, holding signs stating their opposition to a Bel Air Walmart and support for the retailer expanding its existing store off Constant Friendship Boulevard in Abingdon – the latter which Walmart has rejected.
The group also spent more than an hour inside taking the council members to task for not voting.
"What I find personally insulting is, you all didn't even bother to vote for the bill," Tom Davis said.
Davis, who lives in Abingdon near the Constant Friendship shopping center, told the council he recently retired from the U.S. Marine Corps and had spent nine months with a civil affairs unit in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
There, he worked with Afghans to teach them about the American democratic process, which Davis said was lacking from the Harford County Council, regarding Bill 13-16.
"I come in after retiring and I see my elected officials basically tell 200 voters to pound sand," Davis said, referring to the 200 people who packed the council chambers on April 16 for a public hearing on the legislation.
Officials with Walmart, headquartered in Arkansas, are seeking Harford County approval to build a 168,000-square-foot store at the intersection of Route 924 and Plumtree Road – just north of the Festival at Bel Air Shopping Center.
The store would be about 73,000 square feet larger than the Abingdon store, to include a grocery section.
Daniel Peck, who lives off Route 924, urged the council members to show enough courage to curtail development in Harford County, even if it means putting their political careers on the line.
"The developers will vote you out of office but, you'll have my respect," he said.
Following the rejection of Bill 13-16, council members later said the public had a misconception the bill would stop Walmart and denied the planned Bel Air South store was a target of the legislation.
The bill would have placed commercial buildings larger than 75,000 square feet under tighter county scrutiny and given the council final approval over such projects. Had the Bel Air South Walmart plan, which is being reviewed by the county's planning department, not been approved and the bill had passed, it is likely the project would have been delayed, though not necessarily stopped.
Council President Billy Boniface read a statement before Tuesday's legislative session began, reiterating that Bill 13-16 could not have stopped Walmart.
Boniface said "at this time there are no plans to move Bill 13-16 forward," but council members plan to work with Harford County Executive David Craig, who plans to form a task force this summer to "do a comprehensive review of big box [store] requirements and make recommendations for future legislation."
"This council has supported and will continue to support the administration and the community on requiring that the State Highway Administration keep Walmart's feet to the fire to alleviate any traffic issues caused by their project," Boniface said.