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Harford Council passes measure aimed at stopping Bel Air Walmart

The Harford County Council passed a resolution Tuesday asking the State Highway Administration to deny road access to Route 924 for a controversial new Walmart planned for Bel Air because "of the unsafe conditions it would create for the surrounding communities."

A group of perhaps 40 Walmart opponents in the audience, who started the evening with a rally in the drizzle outside of the existing Walmart in Abingdon, applauded a speech by Councilman Jim McMahan explaining why more traffic in the area of Route 924 and Plumtree Drive would be unsafe.

The resolution was apparently rushed to the council Tuesday afternoon, shortly before the meeting, according to Councilwoman Mary Ann LIsanti.

McMahan showed a video of rush-hour traffic at the Bel Air South Parkway intersection with Route 924 in an attempt to demonstrate the amount of vehicles in the area.

"It's not uncommon for people to say, 'Stop development,' but of course that's after they have arrived," he began.

McMahan recalled when the Emmorton area was largely uninhabited when he was young, with none of the development there today.

"There was every opportunity at the time for this property to be developed, thus defining what the community could be, but that didn't happen," he said, explaining that the community developed around it instead and the Walmart now constitutes infill development.

"Infill development has the responsibility to conform to the size and scale of the neighborhood around it," he said.

Councilman Joe Woods agreed, but Councilman Dick Slutzky and Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said they strongly opposed the proposed resolution.

"This is a very troubling resolution for me," Slutzky said, wondering what the "unintended consequences" are of "an effort to manipulate a zoning use."

"The laws also protect the people who understood what the plan was for Harford County for more than 35 years," he said. "If we do this, we pass this resolution, what happens the next time? Those people that want to take the townhouses out of a legally permitted R3 neighborhood will say to the council we need to do that."

Lisanti said there would be dire consequences for making an exception for Walmart.

"This property is zoned properly," she said. "There is nothing this county council can do to change that. We are not permitted by state law to do spot zoning."

She said instead of the resolution, a better idea would have been sending a letter to SHA "instead of overreacting and overextending our authority."

Lisanti said the resolution is an overreaction in response to public sentiment.

"I think it is setting extremely unrealistic expectations for all of you," she said. "I will continue the dialogue with Walmart and anyone else who plans to go there."

She noted that although she is "extremely, extremely troubled by this resolution," she also understands there is a "traffic nightmare" in the area.

Council President Billy Boniface blamed the zoning decision that was made at the time and said the controversy brings up an important problem with the zoning process.

"One of the problems is the law's broken, quite frankly, or we wouldn't be here," he said. "No one envisioned when we changed the zoning to B3 that we would be creating a large box store."

Boniface said each of the councilmembers thought it would be something more in keeping with the existing character of the street, such as office buildings.

"We let you down because we didn't recognize the fact that you could have a big box come in there," he said. "The Department of Planning and Zoning didn't let us know that could happen."

Slutzky disagreed, saying he took the time during comprehensive rezoning to understand what every permitted use was and no one protested the B3 zoning.

He also said with the current zoning, a new detention center could be built at the site.

"I fully understood the implications of B3," he said. "The issue then was they didn't want R4."

Boniface pointed out, however, that the SHA does not have to listen to the council and the Walmart representatives have made it clear they intend to push through with the project.

"We 're not going to be able to stop this project without your help, or at least address the traffic issues," he said. "We're reaching out to the State Highway because they said some of the comments from some of you have concerns."

He said the councilmembers who are supporting the resolution are doing what "good district representatives" should do.

Toward the end of the 3 1/2- hour-long council meeting, only about three people had signed up to speak about Walmart. Boniface said they would not be able to speak on any traffic-related issues that night because the council had already moved on that legislation.

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