Howard Co. wants a Wal-Mart, but not at this site Store plan rejected by zoning board


Howard County officials say they would love to have the nation's leading retailer come to the county.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it would love to come to Howard County. But based on this week's Zoning Board decision, it looks like never the twain shall meet.

Howard County officials don't want Wal-Mart to build on 54 acres near the intersection of U.S. 40 and U.S. 29 in Ellicott City. Wal-Mart says that is the only site that can accommodate its plan for a 114,000-square-foot department store and a 130,000-square-foot members-only wholesale buying club.

The county planning department recommended against changing the zoning on the land from office to retail use to accommodate Wal-Mart. The county Planning Board unanimously agreed. And on Wednesday, the County Council sitting as the Zoning Board unanimously rejected Wal-Mart's use of the site.

"What the public should understand is that this is not a vote against Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is an excellent merchant," said Vincent M. Guida, attorney for a townhouse developer with property adjoining the Ellicott City site,

Thomas M. Meachum, attorney for nearby residents opposed to rezoning the property, agreed. "No one had negative feelings about Wal-Mart," he said. "The bottom line is that it was the wrong place. The county would welcome Wal-Mart in an appropriate place."

Zoning Board member Shane Pendergrass, a 1st District Democrat, is hopeful Wal-Mart will "take the long view" and explore other sites in the county. But that is not likely, said Jane Arend, the company's director of public relations. The Ellicott City property "is the only site we feel would be appropriate," she said. "We are at this time pursuing our options with our attorney."

Although Ms. Arend hopes those options include some sort of reconsideration of Wal-Mart's use of the Ellicott City property, the only option appears to be an appeal of the decision to the Circuit Court. An appeal must be filed within 30 days of the decision.

Any settlement outside of court is unlikely. The Zoning Board said in its July 29 decision that Wal-Mart failed to prove either a mistake in prior zoning or a change in the character of the neighborhood -- the company must have proved either to get the zoning change it needed.

The underlying issue, though, may be traffic, according to local officials.

"It just couldn't be done," said Darrel Drown, a 2nd District Republican, without creating overpasses and underpasses at the intersection of U.S. 40 and U.S. 29, and possibly making modifications to the intersection of U.S. 29 and Route 103, now being built. The Ellicott City property is in Mr. Drown's district.

Mr. Drown said he was convinced the current intersection "would totally fail" on weekends. He said an additional 23,000 cars a day on Saturday and Sunday were just too much for the intersection to handle, no matter what modifications Wal-Mart made there. Mr. Drown said he was also concerned that the project would have backed up to a residential neighborhood.

"Would I love to have a Wal-Mart come to Howard County? You bet!" he said. "But not at that site."

Zoning Board members say they dealt only with the mistake and change issues and never considered the economic consequences of their decision.

Wal-Mart had estimated that it would bring 400 jobs to the county, 250 at the department store and 150 at Sam's Club, the members-only wholesale buying club.

Wal-Mart would not only help the county's economy, but "the company is a good corporate citizen," says Ms. Arend. "We support charities, education and providing a scholarship to a high school senior. We like being involved in the community."

Nicholas B. Mangione, who owns some of the Ellicott City property and has a contract on the remainder, said, "I cannot understand why the county let such a big fish go." He added, "They will not consider another site. They would have brought over $4 million to the county and the state.

"It's bad enough to lose that revenue, but it's also costing people in the county who would have been getting merchandise 10-to-30 percent cheaper. Is this decision for new neighbors in the community or is it for the whole county? It's not fair to the other people in the county."

Attorneys Guida and Meachum disagree. "It was a good planning decision," Mr. Guida said. "They looked at the use of the property," not the buyer. "There was no special criteria. You can't look at the name of a person," he said.

"The Zoning Board deserves a lot of credit," Mr. Meachum said. "They analyzed the facts and did not let any presumed economic benefit in a recessionary time dictate their decision. The public was well-served by its elected officials."

Wal-Mart has stores in Easton, Hagerstown, Prince Frederick, and Waldorf -- among its 1,755-stores nationwide. A Glen Burnie store will open next week. Stores in Bowie, Elkton and Westminster are scheduled to open late this year.

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