The battle over the proposed Walmart south of Bel Air continues to heat up, with opponents planning another rally Saturday to protest the project.
Walmart representatives, meanwhile, say they have gotten about 2,700 signatures from customers at its Abingdon and Aberdeen stores supporting the Bel Air site.
The Bel Air South Community Foundation, which has led the effort to keep Walmart from building a store at Plumtree Road and Route 924, is urging opponents to attend a rally from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Festival at Bel Air shopping center.
"We have thousands of signatures of Bel Air residents who oppose a Bel Air [Walmart], but we have not had much participation from many who have signed their name," the foundation wrote in an email sent to 1,530 residents, who it says oppose the store.
"We have held [Walmart] off for three years butyourhelp is needed to close the deal," the email states. "We need overwhelming community involvement and community involvement requires individual involvement!"
The foundation, which has been posting "10,000 More Cars" signs along Route 924, a reference to the traffic it claims will be generated by the store, also is supporting plans for another community information meeting about the impact of the project.
That meeting is being organized by Harford Del. Susan McComas and will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 30, at Patterson Mill Middle/High School. Opponents conducted a similar meeting last month at the MacFaul Activities Center in Bel Air.
McComas, whose district covers greater Bel Air, including the Walmart site, said it doesn't make sense for Walmart to claim it is being treated more strictly than the nearby MedStar Health medical building, currently under construction, and the Evergreen Apartments complex, also in the pipeline. Those two projects flank the Walmart site.
Walmart representatives told The Aegis last month that the county's traffic mitigation requirements for their project are unfair; however, the county administration has not made any concessions.
"Bottom line is, Walmart is going to have the biggest impact," McComas said Monday.
In January, McComas, as well as other Harford legislators and county officials, expressed dismay when the State Highway Administration reversed a previous decision and, against the county's wishes, decided it would grant Walmart partial access to Route 924.
"We still don't know why the decision was changed," she said.
McComas said she hopes the community, county elected officials and business leaders come to the April meeting, as there are a number of stakeholders who will be affected if the Walmart is built.
Walmart has been petitioning customers at its Abingdon and Aberdeen stores, and most of the signatures collected are from Harford County residents, according to the company.
"We have been communicating with a broad cross-section of the Bel Air and Abingdon communities, as well as with our store customers, to share information on why our move to Bel Air South will provide the community with expanded access to quality goods at low prices," Nina Albert, Walmart director of community affairs, said via email.
"The feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly positive, as we have received around 2,700 signatures from area residents who support our proposal," she said.
Walmart's traffic consultant, The Traffic Group, and the company's attorney requested a meeting with Harford County's public works department recently, county spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.
The company had submitted an updated traffic analysis after SHA approved partial access to Route 924.
"We did decline that meeting because there were some worksheets missing that had data necessary to analyze the level of service and delay at the affected intersections," Mumby said.
"We are continuing to work with local and state officials as we evaluate the traffic improvement requirements that are being asked of us for this project," Albert said regarding relations with the county. "We hope to come to a mutually agreeable plan in the near future."
Conflict of interest alleged
Gene Simmers, a Joppatowne resident, who said he retired as a State Highway Administration traffic engineer after 37 years, said he was "shocked" to find an SHA consultant working on the Walmart project had once been an employee of The Traffic Group, Walmart's consultant.
Simmers said he believes that could be a conflict of interest. He filed Maryland Public Information Act requests with the SHA for documents relating to its review of and decisions on the Walmart project.
"Why is a consultant who has prior recent affiliations with a developer's consultant being tasked with reviewing all traffic impact studies statewide for the [SHA's] office of traffic and safety?" Simmers asked.
Simmers also said the traffic review of the Bel Air store seems very minimal, considering the complexity and depth of Walmart's proposal.
He said he asked SHA's regional traffic review section, as well as a Harford County highways representative, if anyone considered the state's guidelines for minimal vehicle spacing when reviewing a proposed traffic light to be installed between Routes 24 and 924 on Bel Air South Parkway at Blue Spruce Drive. The latter street will access the Walmart site.
"It is going to be just a massive problem for gridlock with traffic signals being that close," Simmers said.
Simmers also said he doesn't see any good way for Walmart to fit onto the parcel along Route 924, a two-lane road.
He pointed out the relatively new Walmart in Fallston is off of Route 1, a four-lane road that, although it has steady traffic, does not see the kind of gridlock that already ties up movement on Wheel Road and Bel Air South Parkway between Routes 924 and 24.
"The Maryland Department of Transportation's State Highway Administration responded to Mr. Simmers' Public Information Act request on April 8, 2015 with information and documents responsive to his request," Charlie Gischlar, SHA public information officer, said in an email.
"Additionally, SHA's review of the proposed Walmart was the same process as it is for every access management review," Gischlar said.