Officials in Howard County should have felt some pangs of remorse when they turned down Wal-Mart's request for a zoning change to build on 54 acres at the intersection of Routes 40 and 29. What with the razzle-dazzle of the nation's leading discounter dangled in front of them like so many tantalizing carrots, it wouldn't have been surprising for county officials to jump through some hoops. They didn't.
Instead, Howard's zoning board -- which is also the county council -- ruled that Wal-Mart had failed to prove a mistake was made in prior zoning of the parcel or that the character of the neighborhood had changed. We can only assume that concerns over the immense potential for a traffic nightmare at the intersection, as well as the vocal opposition of nearby residents, also played a role in the zoning board decision.
Without arguing whether the zoning board was right or wrong, we can say without question that Howard County is the big loser in this matter. Unless Wal-Mart can mount a successful appeal of the zoning board's decision or decides to look elsewhere in Howard for a suitable site, the county stands to lose hundreds of new jobs and millions in tax revenues. In addition, county residents will be deprived of convenient access to the nation's leading retailer. As it is, Howard residents travel in droves to other jurisdictions to shop at such places as Leedmark, Price Club and Pace Membership Warehouse.
In these difficult economic times, there may yet be a political price to pay for county officials' unyielding stance toward Wal-Mart.
For those who are betting that Wal-Mart wants so badly to be in Howard that it will consider another site, don't be so sure. County officials have heard nothing to indicate that Wal-Mart is interested in this approach. With a new store in Glen Burnie, plans for others in Elkton, Westminster and Aberdeen, and the possibility of still others in White Marsh and western Anne Arundel, the folks at Wal-Mart may figure they have already saturated the Baltimore market.
Still, the county is not without its bright lights on the retail horizon. A new shopping center in Columbia, anchored by an expanded Hechinger's and a B.J.'s Warehouse store, is expected to open next year at the site of the old General Electric Appliance Park.
It's no Wal-Mart, but it will be a real plus for Howard County residents.