Harford County seeks changes in Walmart plans for Bel Air South store

Harford County officials and members of the Bel Air South community are in a holding pattern as they wait for Walmart to address what county planners call "deficiencies" with its site plan and traffic analysis for a proposed store.

"We're waiting for them to revise their plans and come back to us," said Shane Grimm, chief of site plan review for the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

The Arkansas-based retailer, which operates four big-box stores in Harford County, is seeking county approval to build a nearly 186,000 square-foot store on almost 17 acres south of Plumtree Road and between Route 24 (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway) and Route 924 (Old Emmorton Road).

The entire site, which covers about 33 acres, is undeveloped land flanked by of a number of commercial establishments, including the Festival at Bel Air shopping center. It is also just southwest of Patterson Mill Middle and High School.

The proposed store, which includes a grocery section, would be more than 72,000 square feet larger than the Walmart store off Constant Friendship Boulevard. The Constant Friendship store, covers 113,000 square feet and was built in 1993; Walmart officials have said previously they intend to close it once the Bel Air South store opens.

Many residents of the Bel Air South area are opposed to the new store and have asked Walmart to consider expanding at Constant Friendship, but the company says that isn't possible. A number of county officials, most prominently County Executive David Craig, also have asked Walmart not to build the new store.

The new store site has all the required zoning approvals, and the site plan has been under review since last fall.

Grimm said Monday Walmart officials must revise their plans for the store and "address deficiencies" highlighted in a traffic analysis.

"They have not addressed our comments to our satisfaction," he said.

Anthony McClune, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said planning officials have "specific" concerns regarding the movement of trucks on site, as well as the overall parking and pedestrian layout.

McClune said the 33-acre site will be subdivided into five lots, with the Walmart store on one nearly 17-acre lot, and planners would also like to see greater forest conservation on the remaining lots, which could be developed for such uses as fast food, bank branches and other retail.

Walmart must also address technical issues with its traffic study, according to McClune.

"Right now we're just waiting for them to submit the additional information," he said.

"We have been working and will continue to work with the local and state traffic reviewers to ensure all needs are met, and we look forward to moving along in the approval process," Amanda Henneberg, senior manager of communications for Walmart, said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday.

Traffic congestion has been among the concerns raised by Bel Air South residents, especially as the county reviews two projects on either side of the Walmart site, including a MedStar Health medical facility to the east, which has received county approval, and a 198-unit apartment complex to the west, which is going through the zoning appeals process.

Bill Wehland, who lives northwest of the apartment complex site, has spoken at public meetings about the traffic the apartments and Walmart are expected to generate.

"It could be a nightmare of traffic congestion along the intersection of 24 and Plumtree, as well as 924 and Plumtree," Wehland said Tuesday. "It's just too much going up in one area."

The Bel Air South Community Foundation, a group opposed to the Walmart project, have attended development review and county council meetings by the hundreds since last summer and held several roadside protests at the store site.

Very little protest activity has taken place since, but Steve Tobia, on the group's organizers, said Tuesday the Foundation remains active.

"The Foundation is alive and well, and we've just been waiting, also on the traffic reports and seeing if Walmart is able to mitigate a lot of the discrepancies both planning and zoning and the State Highway Administration have found," he said.

Tobia said the group's activities have slowed for the summer, but "we'll be planning some things here in the near future."

He declined to say what those activities would be.

"We are rejuvenating here, and we'll be back," Tobia said.

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