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Planner disputes Wal-Mart bid 10th hearing expected on retailer's proposal


Allowing the nation's largest retailer to build two warehouse-size stores near U.S. 29 and U.S. 40 would disregard the county's 1990 General Plan for development, a local planning expert told the county Zoning Board last week.

Lee Cunningham, a Columbia-based land planner and transportation specialist, said Tuesday night that the proposed Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores would violate the General Plan's designation for the "mixed-use" office/research zone that Wal-Mart wants to rezone for retail use.

Mixed-use centers, which include residences and businesses, "should not be the sites for regional shopping centers or strip-type shopping centers," he said. Under the General Plan, he said, such centers should allow retailers, but only those that would serve just the needs of residents of the mixed-use center.

Wal-Mart has maintained that its two Ellicott City stores would not constitute a regional shopping center because most of their customers would be Howard countians.

The opposition's economist, Morton Hoffman, acknowledged that the stores do not fit his definition of a regional shopping center, which he described as having many small stores.

Cunningham said that Wal-Mart's own analysis of its clientele indicated that the stores would attract shoppers from outside the community. He noted that the company's representative said that the stores would draw customers from as far as Mount Airy.

Cunningham was hired as an expert witness by developer Joseph Wilder. Wilder is building the Ellicott Meadows town house development next to the 54-acre site on which the Arkansas-based retailer hopes to build a 119,500-square-foot Wal-Mart department store and a 135,500-square-foot Sam's Club wholesale buying club.

About 90 people attended the hearing, most wearing orange "No" stickers. Neighbors fear the project will bring noise, trash, bright lights and crime to their homes.

The opposition of Wilder and residents of the U.S. 40 corridor, spearheaded by two zoning attorneys, has helped make the hearing the longest in memory. Testimony began Feb. 12, and the County Council, whose members sit as the Zoning Board, plans to schedule a 10th hearing night.

Opposition attorneys plan to call a real estate expert as their final witness then, but two rounds of rebuttal witnesses could follow.

During Tuesday's testimony, Cunningham and Hoffman also argued that Wal-Mart's legal arguments for the zoning change were invalid.

All zoning changes made between the periodic comprehensive rezonings require a mistake in the last comprehensive rezoning or a change in the character of the neighborhood.

Wal-Mart has argued that the Zoning Board erred when it failed to anticipate the drop in demand for office buildings in its last comprehensive rezoning in 1985.

Hoffman said that information available in 1985 did not show any sign of the office market's current depression, and his interviews with real estate brokers and developers confirmed that.

"There was no indication that the office market was about to drop off the face of the earth," he testified. Buildings were still being constructed and financing was still readily available for office development then, he said.

Cunningham testified that even considering the poor office market, the planned office/research zoning category is still viable because of the variety of other uses it allows.

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