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A key obstacle to the construction of a Wal-Mart store in Ellicott City evaporated last week when the department store chain agreed to help pay for road improvements near the proposed site for the store.

But Wal-Mart still faces major hurdles.

In the past, Wal-Mart has refused to pay for road widening, traffic lights and other improvements that county planners believe are necessary to reduce congestion around the store.

Columbia attorney Richard Talkin, representing Wal-Mart at a zoning board hearing Wednesday night, promised that the company would build additional lanes on U.S. Route 40 and share in the cost of a traffic signal, if necessary.

The chain hopes to build a 119,500-square-foot department store and a 132,500 square-foot Sam's Club wholesale buying club on North Ridge Road north of Route 40.

The County Council, sitting as the zoning board, is hearing the case and expects to decide the future of the project by mid-March. A second zoning hearing is set for 8 p.m. Feb. 27 and a third is likely, said board chairman C. Vernon Gray.

Tobuild the store, Wal-Mart must convince the board to rezone 54 office/research acres as commercial. The company has so far argued unsuccessfully before county planners and the planning board that the original zoning was a mistake and that the character of the neighborhood has changed.

The first zoning hearing drew more than 80 people Wednesday night, many of whom live near the site and oppose the project.

Opponents fear the project will bring noise from round-the-clock deliveries, trash blowing from parking lots, lights shining into bedrooms and crime from the large numbers of people who would be attracted to the stores.

Responding to those complaints, a Wal-Mart planningconsultant showed how the company had adjusted its plans. Valdis Lazdins, of the Columbia-based LDR International Inc., explained that earth, trees and shrubs would shield residents' views of the Sam's Clubstore. The store's location also was shifted so that its loading dock would be on the opposite side of the building from the homes.

Wal-Mart real estate manager Michael Davis said that the Arkansas-basedretailer had considered other sites in the county, including the former General Electric Appliance Park East off Snowden River Parkway, which the Rouse Co. is trying to market to large-scale retailers.

But the Columbia site was not a regional shopping location and it was too close to Wal-Mart's proposed store site at Route 198 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Anne Arundel County, he said.

If it wins the rezoning, Wal-Mart hopes to open the two stores in the spring of 1993.

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