Harford County's long list of traffic improvements for Walmart's controversial proposed store in Bel Air South is inequitable when compared to less expensive conditions for developers of nearby properties, a Walmart spokesperson says.
"This is unfair treatment," Nina Albert, Walmart's director of community affairs, said about the county's demand that Walmart improve intersections as far away as Route 924 and MacPhail Road, part of the $6 million traffic mitigation package demanded by the county.
Meeting with two Aegis editors and a reporter at the newspaper's Bel Air office Monday, Albert said the company believes its proposal to spend $4 million on such improvements, which would include a full intersection at Route 924 and Bright Oaks Drive, is "generous."
If the county continues to insist on the more expensive and expansive improvements, Walmart would need "to assess the impact" in deciding whether to proceed with development of the 186,000-square-foot store at Route 924 and Plumtree Road, she said.
Albert was accompanied by Joseph Snee, Walmart's attorney for the Bel Air South project, and David Curley, an executive with the public relations firm Sandy Hillman Communications. She spoke less than a day after opponents held a community meeting in Bel Air to discuss the latest developments with traffic control plans for the store. Albert said Walmart representatives were not invited and did not attend.
Albert said developers of two other projects planned along Plumtree, the MedStar Health medical arts building just east of Route 924 and Evergreen Woods Apartments west of Route 24, are being required by the county to make $400,000 and $500,000 in road improvements, respectively.
Walmart was asked to study 21 intersections, versus 12 requested of MedStar and six of Evergreen's developer, she said, to which it did not object, but it does not agree with the county's conclusions based on those studies.
"We are one of Harford County's largest employers," Albert said. "We are willing to invest $4 million of road improvements, more than MedStar and Evergreen are doing together. We are offering a generous proposal and we are asking to be treated fairly in kind."
Like Albert, Snee said the amount of money the county wants Walmart to spend is "vastly disproportionate" to its impact and to requirements for the other developers in the area.
"Walmart is being asked to fix the sins of the world by remediating issues we are not causing," he said. "To the extent Walmart does or does not go there, traffic is not getting any better."
Walmart's $4 million worth of improvements include the extension of Blue Spruce Drive from Bel Air South Parkway to Plumtree Road, with traffic lights and additional turning lanes installed at both ends of Blue Spruce, improvements to the intersections of Route 924 and Bel Air South Parkway and Route 924 and Plumtree Road, Route 24 and Plumtree and Route 24 and Bel Air South Parkway and Route 924 and Patterson Mill Road.
Walmart prefers to install a full intersection at Route 924 and Bright Oaks, extending the latter into the 34-acre store site, Albert said; however, that would require additional approvals from the State Highway Administration and, ultimately, the county. Earlier this year, more controversy ensued when the SHA agreed to allow Walmart right-in and right-out access to Route 924, reversing the agency's previous denial of such access in adhering to a 2012 Harford County Council resolution requesting no Route 924 access.
Snee said requiring traffic improvements at intersections miles from the site is not fair.
"We want the county to follow the law," he said, explaining that improvements should not be required at intersections found through analysis that are "excessive distance" from the site and for which the Walmart project will have "minimal impact."
East MacPhail Road and Route 924 is one example he cited, saying Walmart's projected impact would be 1 percent of total traffic volume.
Snee said he was told by county officials that the next budget contains $7 million in road improvements for the rest of the county. He also noted that until Walmart agreed to pay for the signal at Bel Air South Parkway and Blue Spruce, the county had budgeted $700,000 to build a roundabout there. "Now they won't have to do that," he noted.
Though one opposition leader said Sunday that Walmart will bring "10,000 more cars to the Bel Air South area," Albert said the store will generate on average 8,800 trips in and out, or 4,400 vehicles coming daily to the store, which will be open 24 hours.
During the most critical peak morning period, Walmart estimates there will be 476 total trips generated by the store compared with 311 by MedStar and 101 by the 198-unit Evergreen Apartments, both which have received most of the county approvals, Snee said.
A second comparison showed 695 peak evening trips for Walmart, versus 388 for MedStar and 127 for Evergreen. Based on the improvements the county requested for the other two projects, Walmart would be required to provide $12,605 in improvements per morning peak trip or $8,623 per evening peak trip, while the cost per peak trip at MedStar would fall in the $1,300 to $1,600 range and at Evergreen in the $3,100 to $4,000 range.
Albert said expanding and renovating the existing, 22-year-old Walmart on Constant Friendship Boulevard is not a feasible option.
"We always look at expanding first," she said, explaining the site is "very challenged to efficiently expand" for Walmart's needs, which includes a grocery department. The company plans to lease the building once it moves to the Bel Air South site, she said.
"We take very seriously the cost and convenience to the customers, and unfortunately, expanding is not optimal on the site," she said of Constant Friendship, citing "logistical problems" that would, among other challenges, require expanding the building from the front out.
"Can you imagine adding on to the front of you home?" she asked by way of example.
Walmart moving to Bel Air South would get the community much-needed traffic improvements, as well as a better place to shop, Albert and Snee said.
"The county has no money to fix its own roads. The state has no money to fix its own roads," Snee said, explaining the work then falls to the developer.
He also pointed out the undeveloped property at Bel Air South pays $2,698 in property taxes to Harford County, while once the store is constructed the property taxes generated will approach $270,000, compared to the $141,000 in taxes Walmart pays on the Constant Friendship store.
Albert said the new store would create approximately 248 construction jobs and will employ approximately 325 people when completed.
"I know a lot of people question why we are leaving our existing site. It's hard to explain because there are multiple factors involved," she said. "We are doing what is best for the customer. We are making a 20-year investment."