Commentary: Speaking with forked tongues on Walmart

Commentary: Speaking with forked tongues on Walmart
A line of Walmart protestors stretches down the sidewalk from the County Council building during last week's DAC meeting in Bel Air. (Nicole Munchel | Aegis staff, Patuxent Homestead)

I'm from a certain age when there were a lot of westerns - cowboys and Indians pictures - on television.

Often, the Native Americans would use the expression "white man speaks with forked tongue" to describe their dealings with the "white eyes." The forked tongue analogy I'm assuming was a reference to the snake, which has a forked tongue and tends to slither around unnoticed and strike when not expected.


Of course, politicians have long been known to speak with forked tongues, and our Harford County pols are no exception. A case in point are some of their statements and actions with regard to the proposed Bel Air Plumtree Walmart project.

Despite the recent posturing against the project by some council members, Jim McMahan, in particular, and by Harford County Executive David Craig, who has asked Walmart to consider staying put in Abingdon, all these folks had multiple opportunities to stop the project before it ever saw the light of day — and in most instances they did just the opposite.

For instance:

2005-06 - The council passed the comprehensive zoning review law which changed the 33-acre site's zoning from residential to business, as requested by owner Hal Dahan. Current council members Dick Slutzky and Dion Guthrie were in office then, and both voted for the bill. Craig later vetoed that bill, successfully, but his stated reasons for the veto had nothing to do with the Walmart property.

2007-08 - A contract purchaser of the site petitioned the county for a rezoning of the site from residential to B3 commercial, claiming the 1997 county council made a "mistake" when it refused to rezone the site from residential to business at the property owner's request.

Here is what Robert Kahoe, the county zoning hearing examiner in the above case, concluded in his opinion, dated June 20, 2008:

"Legally sufficient evidence was not presented to enable a finding of County Council mistake in 1997. The 'strong presumption' of correctness of the 1997 comprehensive zoning is not overcome. Furthermore, a reclassification of land will not be approved simply because an owner may receive higher profits from such a reclassification. The inability of an owner to realize the highest possible profit from a piece of property is not grounds for a rezoning. Accordingly, it is recommended that the proposed rezoning be denied."

The applicant for the rezoning change, who supposedly had a deal with Wegmans to buy the site, appealed the examiner's finding to the county council, which also functions as the county zoning board and has final authority in such matters.

In September 2008, the county council heard final arguments from the applicant and opponents, who included the people's zoning counsel, appearing on behalf of area residents, and the owners of the Klein's (now ShopRite) store in the Festival at Bel Air.

Subsequent to final arguments, the council voted, 5-2, on Sept. 9, 2008, to reject the hearing examiner's finding and rezone the property to B3 commercial.

Here is an excerpt from the official council minutes in the matter of Zoning Reclassification Case No. 170 (Evergreen Development LLC/Evergreen Business Trust):

"A motion to reject the hearing examiner's decision and to approve the council's request was made by Council Member [Roni] Chenowith and seconded by Council Member [Dion] Guthrie. Council Member McMahan asked if this property would accommodate a cultural arts program. [Council Attorney] Charlie Kearney stated that is not relevant to this case and it should not guide the council members' decision.

"Roll was called and the motion passed with five votes of aye and two votes of nay (5-2). The negative votes were case by Mr. [Chad] Shrodes and Mr. [Dick] Slutzky."

I'll add at this point that the votes for the rezoning in addition to McMahan and the late Mrs. Chenowith and Guthrie included Council President Billy Boniface and Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti. All of the participants in the 2008 vote, with the exception of Mrs. Chenowith, who died the following winter, are still serving on the council, all having been re-elected, most with relative ease, in 2010.


2009 - That wasn't the end for Case No. 170, however, because the opponents appealed the decision to the Circuit Court where, in an opinion dated Feb. 3, 2009, Judge Angela Eaves overturned the council's action and remanded the case to the county council "with the instruction to re-instate the decision of the Harford County Zoning Hearing Examiner."

This never happened, however, because by that time, the owner of the Plumtree property had already made application to the county to have it rezoned under the countywide comprehensive zoning review of 2008-09 that was under way.

In the spring of 2009, the Harford County Department of Planning & Zoning recommended that the B3 business zoning be approved for the property, so did the five member Planning Advisory Board, which is made up of citizens.

On June 16, 2009, the comprehensive rezoning Bill No. 09-23 was introduced to the county council which held public hearings on it and then approved the legislation, including the Plumtree rezoning, on Aug. 11, 2009. All of the current council members voted for the legislation, including Joe Woods who had replaced Mrs. Chenowith and in whose council district the property is located.

Craig subsequently signed Bill No. 09-23 into law and it took effect on October 13, 2009. At that point, according to Evergreen Business Trust lawyer Robert Lynch, the earlier case from 2007-08 became moot. The site was officially rezoned to B3 and — enter Walmart.

2011 - During public work sessions in the spring on a planned update of the county's master land use plan, word got out in the Abingdon and Bel Air South communities that Walmart was planning to buy and build on the Plumtree site. Many residents hoped to use the workshop to express their dismay, but the county executive dispatched his minions to the workshop to tell the public that Walmart was off-limits for the discussion on the grounds that the county had never seen any indication there was a plan for Walmart.

Maybe the above claim about "no plan" submitted was reason to squelch the early public discussion, but I think the county officials involved knew better. For anyone in county government – and some are more complicit than others – to come back a year later and claim they were not aware of or didn't understand the impact a Walmart would have at Plumtree is pretty disingenuous. Such claims also fly in the face of the site's well documented zoning history, in which most of these officials have directly participated.

In other words, they are speaking with forked tongues.