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Anti-Walmart bill dies in County Council

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Despite the pleas of many local residents to support a bill that would require retail establishments larger than 75,000 square feet, like the Walmart proposed at Plumtree Road and Route 24 in Bel Air South, to ultimately be approved by the Harford County Council, it was not voted on by council members and thus failed Tuesday.

The expanded Walmart, its fourth in Harford County, would replace its existing store off OF Constant Friendship Boulevard in Abingdon

Council President Billy Boniface, who sponsored the legislation when it was introduced last month, along with council members Jim McMahan, Dion Guthrie and Joe Woods, said after Tuesday's council meeting that he "thought it was a good bill" and was disappointed in his fellow council members' decision not to vote on it.

"I'm disappointed we couldn't even get it to the floor to discuss it," he said.

The council voted 5-2 in favor of five amendments to clarify language in the bill.

Councilman Jim McMahan, whose district includes the Bel Air South area, made a motion in favor of accepting the amended bill.

Boniface asked for a second, but none was offered.

"There being no second, Bill No. 13-16 fails," the council president said.

The vote came during the council's legislative session Tuesday, which was preceded by a public hearing on the bill.

About 25 to 30 people spoke during the hearing, which lasted about 90 minutes. A number of speakers characterized the bill as anti-business.

Sheryl Davis Kohl, of the Harford County Chamber of Commerce, urged council members not to support the bill "on the grounds it creates uncertainty for land owners."

Bel Air attorney Robert Lynch, a representative of the Haron Dahan Foundation, which owns the site along with Evergreen Business Trust, also urged council members not to support the bill.

He noted past councils had supported zoning the site as B3 for business, which allows large retail developments.

"You cannot invest in property if the rules suddenly change," he said.

About twice the number of people, however, urged the council to support the bill. Many Bel Air South residents have decried building the expanded Walmart because of the significant increase in traffic along Route 924.

Bel Air resident Helen Mann thanked the council "for coming up with a creative solution to a complex issue we have in Bel Air."

Many speakers said they have no problem with Walmart and encouraged the retailer to expand its store at Constant Friendship instead.

Aravinda Pillalamarri, of Bel Air, said having a large Walmart so close to downtown Bel Air could hurt the small businesses in the Main Street district.

"Please do not let Harford County become another statistic," she said.

Scott DeLong, who lives along Route 924 and participated in a recent protest of the Bel Air South Walmart, reminded the council members of their "primary obligation."

"I would say your primary obligation is the welfare of your citizens and not to the welfare of Walmart," he said.

A state representative even weighed in – Republican Del. Glen Glass, whose district covers areas of Cecil and Harford counties, took the podium dressed in a Baltimore Orioles jacket.

He said he "wanted to go to an Orioles game tonight, but I wanted to come here instead and speak for the 80,000 citizens I represent in the Route 40 corridor."

"I do not want Harford County to turn into Montgomery County, thank you very much," he added to applause from bill supporters.

Two representatives of Walmart were at Tuesday's hearing.

Spokesman William Wertz provided a written statement.

"We continue to believe that our store is appropriate for the Plumtree [Road] site and can be part of the solution for residents who want convenient and affordable shopping options," it stated.

McMahan said before the hearing, the legislation was not targeted at Walmart, but to give greater transparency and oversight to the approval process for projects in B3 zones.

His colleague, Guthrie, said several weeks ago the bill was "absolutely" meant to delay the Walmart project.

"When I originally thought of this bill, it had no intention whatsoever at that time to stop any development at that location," McMahan said of the site at Plumtree Road.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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