County, Walmart reps meet with citizens privately about Bel Air site

Harford County representatives, members of the Abingdon Community Council and Walmart officials met privately Monday night to discuss community concerns over the proposed Bel Air Walmart site on Plumtree Road.

The county initiated the meeting, so a discussion could be had "in a very constructive setting," county Chief of Staff Aaron Tomarchio, who attended, said.

Tomarchio said Tuesday he made a commitment to the community after an earlier public meeting about Walmart in the summer, which he said "wasn't very productive," to ask Walmart to meet with community members and hear what they have to say. During that earlier public input meeting held July 19, residents filled Patterson Mill High School's auditorium and, at times, got rowdy, with hundreds of them yelling and chanting that Walmart wasn't welcome in Bel Air.

Nina Albert, director of community affairs for Walmart, confirmed they were invited to Monday's meeting.

"We appreciate that the county executive and Abingdon Community Council invited us," Albert said, "and were willing to have a forthright and honest discussion about what the community's concerns are."

Walmart was hesitant to be part of the meeting, Tomarchio said, given the reception the company received at the community input meeting, but he said the company agreed to meet with a smaller group of citizens to go over the project.

Cynthia Hergenhahn, chairperson of Abingdon Community Council, and council members C. David Copenhaver, Carlin Cook, Joan Hamilton and Earl Grey attended the meeting, which lasted three hours.

In addition to Tomarchio, Jane Walker and Patricia Gonzalez, with the county executive's office, attended from the county.

Patrick Roddy, counsel for Walmart; John Meyer, with KNLB Realtors; Wes Guckert, with The Traffic Group; Gabe Masa, of MMA Architects; Mike Birkland, of Bowman Engineering; and Albert represented Walmart.

"By advertising it [the meeting] and putting it out there it would have been a meeting that would have been completely unwieldy," Tomarchio said, defending why the meeting wasn't publicly advertised or even made open to anyone. Members of the media were not invited, nor notified about it beforehand.

Steve Tobia, with the Bel Air South Foundation, called The Aegis about the meeting Monday afternoon and said the organization was not invited. Tobia and Tomarchio had spoken last week, and Tobia said he was informed there would be a meeting.

"I don't think they're the voice for all of Bel Air," Tobia said about the Abingdon Community Council.

Walmart officials had concerns that the session could turn into another near-hostile environment like it was at Patterson Mill, Tomarchio said.

While Walmart's Albert confessed that it was "difficult to have a real conversation" during the July community input meeting, she would not confirm that Walmart had asked to have a smaller, follow up meeting to avoid a similar situation.

The minutes from Monday's meeting and the concerns listed by the Abingdon Community Council will be made public, according to Tomarchio; however, they were not available Tuesday afternoon.

Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz added, "Like the information we got in the wider community, the meeting helps us to refine our plan." The information also gives the company a clearer picture of what the community is looking for and the biggest concerns, he said.

"This particular briefing session was specific for the Abingdon Community Council," said county spokesperson Bob Thomas. "It was not a public briefing session where you would have a public forum similar to [the Development Advisory Committee] or more expansive."

Thomas likened it to similar meetings the county holds with various stakeholders throughout the year that are not publicly advertised.

"To bring Walmart to the table we had to commit to a smaller venue," Tomarchio added during a conference call with him and Thomas. The Abingdon Community Council, he pointed out, is the closest recognized representation for residents living near the Walmart site at Plumtree Road and Route 924.

While several residents opposing the new Walmart have formed the Bel Air South Foundation, Thomas noted that group hasn't been identified by the county as an official organization while the Abingdon Community Council has.

The meeting was an opportunity for one-on-one dialogue between a community and a developer, Tomarchio said.

"We've never done this before where the county executive's office, the county has stepped in and put residents in direct connection on a larger scale like this with the proposed developer," he continued.

Tomarchio stressed that the meeting was held for an "exchange of information and ideas" and that no commitments were made, except for Walmart to continue an open dialogue with community members.

As for members of the Bel Air South Foundation, Tomarchio said, the group should formally identify itself to the county, in particular the leadership.

"We welcome them to formally introduce themselves. That's probably more constructive than standing out in the rain and holding signs," in reference to protests in July and again last week outside the Abingdon Walmart.

The next step involving the proposed Bel Air–Plumtree Walmart will come next Wednesday, Oct. 17, when the county's Development Advisory Committee will hold its review of the site plan. The meeting, which is open to the public, will start at 9 a.m. in the Harford County Council's chambers at 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air.

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