Bel Air South residents – who have spent months working to stop Walmart's effort to close its store at Constant Friendship Boulevard and build a new one at Route 24 and Plumtree Road – were shocked at the Harford County Council's decision not to vote last week on legislation which would have slowed down the project.
Bill Wehland, a resident of Bel Air South – he lives west of Route 24 – has been outspoken about development in the area of Plumtree and Route 24.
"It just bothers me so much that a council sponsors a bill and can't get a second," he said during the public comment portion of the April 16 council meeting.
Wehland encouraged residents to stay involved in the fight against Walmart in Bel Air South.
"We don't need them," he thundered. "We don't want them and I can't make it any clearer than that!"
More than 20 people pleaded during a public hearing last week for council members to support Bill 13-16, sponsored by Councilman Jim McMahan, but the bill died after council members declined to vote on it.
Had it been passed, the legislation would have required commercial and retail establishments, which are larger than 75,000 square feet and slated for areas zoned B3 for business, to go through a much stricter approval process than what is on the books in Harford County.
The ultimate approval would rest in the hands of the county council, acting in its traditional role as the Board of Appeals for large developments.
Local residents Steve Tobia and Skip Panowitz, members of the Bel Air South Community Foundation who have been among those speaking out and organizing protests against Walmart's planned moved to their community, were also shocked by the council's decision.
"There were already amendments that had been approved that essentially took any impact that it would have had on the Walmart project off the table," Panowitz said Monday. "So, why not second the motion, and then if you're not satisfied with the content, vote against or table it or whatever the case may be?"
Tobia, who said he was "flabbergasted" by the decision not to vote, said residents would continue their fight, even without the council's support.
'It would have been nice'
"With or without them we're going to continue on," he said. "It would have been nice to have them on our side, but we'll press on without them."
The statements made by bill supporters during the public hearing were precisely what made Councilman Dion Guthrie – who had been a supporter of McMahan's bill – join his five fellow council members in not offering a second after McMahan made a motion to accept the bill.
Council President Billy Boniface said later he could not offer a second, as president.
"The people who testified on behalf of the bill, they basically were the reasons why I did what I did," Guthrie said in the days following last week's meeting.
Guthrie, along with Boniface and Councilman Joe Woods, was a co-sponsor of Bill 13-16.
Walmart has been working with county officials for at least a year to get approval for a 186,000-square-foot store on 17 acres at Plumtree Road and Route 24.
The store would replace Walmart's smaller establishment off Constant Friendship Boulevard in Abingdon, and the new store would include a grocery section.
Opponents of the move to Bel Air South have been encouraging Walmart to expand its Constant Friendship store, one of four in Harford County.
The -undeveloped land is bounded by Route 924 (Emmorton Road) on the east side, and many residents who live in the vicinity of Route 924 have been concerned about the impact on local traffic, as well as nearby Patterson Mill Middle and High schools.
"They believed that the passing of that legislation would prevent Walmart from building their store there on 924, which was totally incorrect," Guthrie explained.
The councilman said the legislation would have forced Walmart to "jump through some more hoops here and there," but it would not have prevented the store from being built altogether.
"Passing that bill would have sent a wrong message to the citizens," Guthrie said.
Goal of the bill
McMahan said before last week's public hearing that the bill "was never introduced to impede any particular development."
The councilman explained in prepared remarks that it was meant to deal with development in areas zoned B3, which he said are "literally shrinking" in their capacity to accommodate projects.
"It has been labeled 'the Walmart bill,' and that is so totally wrong," McMahan told The Aegis later. "The bill was not designed to be all these terrible things that people are saying."
A handful of people spoke against the bill during the public hearing. They characterized it as anti-business and unfair to Walmart, by changing the rules after the company had already applied to build.
"Jim's just about 40 years behind his times," Bel Air South resident George Marll, who lives off Emmorton Road, said of McMahan. "He could have avoided [development impacts] back in the '60s if he came out with something like this."
Five amendments were introduced during the legislative session portion of last week's meeting.
Two of them, which were introduced by McMahan, Boniface and Woods, were described by McMahan as "housekeeping amendments" to clear up language in the chart of permitted uses for stores larger than 75,000 square feet in various zoning areas.
Councilman Chad Shrodes said during the discussion that permitted uses in the bill had "huge ramifications" for projects in areas outside the B3 zones.
"It just clearly shows that, while I understand the whole purpose of the entire bill, I do not think that a lot of study went into this and unfortunately I can't support it," Shrodes said.
The amendments were approved 5-2, with Shrodes and Woods voting against.
Two others were introduced by Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti and Councilman Richard Slutzky.
They would ensure the bill would not apply to projects in which developers had already applied for preliminary or site plan approval.
"The purpose is to remove any ambiguity that this bill has created," Lisanti said. "Simply stated, this bill should not be misinterpreted to be an ex post facto law. It is my opinion that retroactive legislation is simply not consistent with common law, for which we adhere to."
Those amendments passed 5-2, with Guthrie and McMahan voting against.
Council fails to vote
The bill, with its five approved amendments, came before the council for a vote. McMahan made a motion to approve, and Boniface called for a second.
None was offered, however.
"There being no second, Bill No. 13-16, as amended, fails," Boniface said with a sigh.
The council president said after the meeting he thought the legislation was good.
"I'm disappointed we couldn't even get it to the floor to discuss it," he said.
Woods said he did not offer a second because he had not planned to vote for the bill.
"I never second something I'm not voting for," he said Thursday.
Woods said he and other council members had heard from a number of people concerned about the potential impacts from Bill 13-16 on similar building projects throughout the county.
He noted projects dependent on time-limited bank funding could have been hurt by a loss of funds.
"I got more e-mails and contacts from people giving me reasons why this will hurt them," he said.
Woods clarified that, under state and county law, the county council could not vote on the Walmart project when sitting as the Board of Appeals, because members are too familiar with it.
The county also risked having to defend the legislation in court.
He said the Department of Planning and Zoning has sole authority to approve the project.
Walmart spokesman William Wertz, reached for comment last week, declined to comment further, referring to a written statement he had provided after the public hearing.
"Moving forward, we will continue to work with the county planning department, answer questions and share information about the benefits a Walmart store can bring to Bel Air," Wertz stated.
Hundreds of residents opposed to the project packed the County Council chambers last October as the Development Advisory Committee reviewed it.
Moe Davenport, chairman of the DAC, ultimately recommended the county not approve the project until Walmart could ease residents' concerns over traffic and other impacts from the development.
County government spokesman Robert Thomas said Tuesday the development is "still a pending project with Planning and Zoning," and Walmart officials must revise their plans before planning officials review them.