Bel Air South area residents opposed to a new Walmart in their neighborhood were back protesting at Route 924 and Plumtree Road Saturday by the site of the planned store, handing out bumper stickers and collecting more anti-Walmart petition signatures.
While the opponents were ramping up their outside protest activities once again, a Walmart spokesman said Monday the company continues to work on a traffic management plan for the store and also reiterated Walmart's position that it is not feasible to expand at is current location less than two miles away.
About 100 people protested Saturday, waving their bright red "No Bel Air Walmart" signs at passing motorists on the busy highway at a prime time for maximum exposure. The weather – it was sunny and unseasonably mild – cooperated.
Steve Tobia, who helped organize the protest, said Monday the rally went very well and 95 petition signatures were collected through a new "drive-through sign-up service."
"It went exceptionally well. We had a strong turnout," Tobia said, estimating there were "well over 100" people protesting.
Tobia's group also has begun handing out free, red "No Walmart" bumper stickers, so residents may also start seeing more of those around town.
The group has about 3,000 signatures overall and has been sending e-mail updates to about 1,800 people, Tobia said. The goal is to reach 8,000 people, he added.
"We are going to continue doing rallies and we have a couple of things on the agenda," Tobia explained. "We will let you know as we develop some of our future plans."
"We had such good participation," he said of Saturday's protest. "The motor vehicle traffic was real supportive; it was like non-stop honking and waving to us."
"We really felt like we had the community behind us," he said. "We are going to build on that."
Met with Walmart
The outdoor protests, which began last summer and lasted into late fall, were resumed after leaders of the opposition met with a Walmart representative in late November to discuss the alternative of expanding the existing Walmart on Constant Friendship Boulevard in Abingdon, rather than building a new store barely two miles north on Route 24.
The group was later informed, however, that Walmart continues to prefer to build the new store at Plumtree Road and then close the older store.
"They [Walmart] can expand at Constant Friendship, but they don't want to," Bill Wehland, one of the opposition leaders, said in a brief phone conversation last week. "They have not given us a reason why."
According to information the opponents presented at the meeting with the Walmart representative, the 20-year-old Constant Friendship store is 116,000 square feet, and the original layout of the site made provision for a future addition of 30,000 square feet. But the group also believes another 20,000 to 30,000 square feet could be added, without adversely affecting parking, for a total of 50,000 to 60,000 additional square feet.
The store Walmart plans to build on 16 acres at Plumtree Road will have 186,000 square feet, according to the plans submitted to the county.
Wehland said the opponents are planning to attend this Tuesday's Harford County Council session, where they will give a presentation on Walmart's potential options to expand in Abingdon versus building on the Plumtree Road site.
The county, meanwhile, continues to review Walmart's site plan for the new store but has not yet given final approval.
Traffic plan in progress
Bill Wertz, a spokesman for Walmart, said Monday the company is continuing to work on a traffic plan.
"We know that there is concern in the community about our plan and specifically the traffic issue that has been discussed in a number of different venues," Wertz said, noting Walmart has had community meeting and met with the planning and zoning department.
"Certainly our charge, really, from the county is to ensure that we are not aggravating the traffic situation," he said. "In fact, we believe we will be able to improve it."
Although some of the company's stores have been eligible for expansion, Wertz explained, the existing Abingdon Walmart did not qualify.
"We looked at that first. We have had a lot of professional people look at how we could [expand]," he said. "It really is unworkable for us."
Wertz said expanding the Abingdon store would involve too much disruption of activity in the store.
"We wouldn't be able to expand and carry our business in a satisfactory way," he said.
"It is an ongoing dialogue with the community. We are in touch with a number of different community residents and are answering residents," he said. "We are trying to assure everybody that we expect to have a traffic plan that will be satisfactory to both the county and state."
This story is updated from an earlier version to reflect a clarification about the potential square footage Bel Air South Foundation leaders believe can be added to the existing Walmart store in Constant Friendship.