SHA nixes Bel Air Walmart access from Route 924

Maryland State Highway Administration officials have denied an entrance-exit to the proposed site of the Bel Air South Walmart from Route 924 and Bright Oaks Drive, a crucial access point from a major thoroughfare.

It was one of a handful recommendations for traffic improvements to the road the SHA issued recently regarding the network surrounding the proposed site of planned super center at Plumtree Road and Route 924.

"While the developer may desire an access on MD 924 to improve marketability, the addition of a MD 924 access does not provide a substantial transportation benefit to the overall roadway network," Steven Foster, chief and development manager for the SHA's Access Management Division, wrote in a four-and-a-quarter page letter dated Sept. 30 to Alex Rawls, a planner with the Land Use and Transportation Section of the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning.

The SHA provided a copy of the letter, written after state officials reviewed the traffic study prepared for the Walmart project, to The Aegis Wednesday. A copy appears on Page A6.

Foster wrote that officials "determined that a MD 924 access would not be granted for the development. The basis for the decision is that the County roadways provide ample opportunity for access to the local roadway network with appropriate roadway improvements on the County and State roadways to mitigate development-generated traffic impacts."

Walmart officials planned to place a traffic signal at the intersection of Route 924 and Bright Oaks, add through lanes and turn lanes to Route 924 and widen the western approach of Bright Oaks. A "Site Access Drive" would also be built.

He stated that the "proposed Site Access Drive approach should be eliminated and all access [should be] from Plumtree Road and Blue Spruce Drive to Bel Air South Parkway."

Walmart officials have been seeking Harford County approval for more than a year to build a nearly 186,000-square-foot store with a grocery section on 17 wooded acres at Plumtree Road and Route 924.

The site is surrounded by existing development, including the Festival at Bel Air shopping center and Patterson Mill Middle/High School.

Officials with the Arkansas-based retail firm plan to close the 20-year-old, 113,000-square-foot Walmart store off Constant Friendship Boulevard in Abingdon.

The land, which is owned by the Evergreen Business Trust, is south of Plumtree and west of Route 924; Route 24 is along the eastern border of the property.

Analysts with The Traffic Group Inc. reviewed 14 local intersections which would be affected by the increased commercial traffic.

The state also requires construction of "bicycle pocket lanes" along Route 924, plus a sidewalk along Route 924 heading south, according to Foster's letter.

He noted that a proposed widening of Route 24 to six lanes between Route 924 and Route 1 has been placed in the state's Highway Needs Inventory.

Foster wrote that SHA officials recommended the county require the developer to establish a 55-foot setback from the state's current right-of-way along the highway "for the proposed future improvements."

Pete Gutwald, director of planning and zoning for the county, said he must work with county traffic planners and traffic planners for Walmart to determine "what are the necessary improvements to meet the regulations."

Gutwald said the traffic study included an alternative analysis, in case access from Route 924 was denied.

"When you have multiple access points [there are] more opportunities to distribute the traffic," he explained.

Gutwald said Blue Spruce will be extended to "bifurcate" the property and provide traffic access down the length of the property between Plumtree and Bel Air South Parkway on the southern end.

He also said the state's ruling does not automatically mean Walmart's entire plan will be denied, but is a matter of "this is what is required in order to meet the regulations."

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