CHESTERTOWN -- After waging a winter-long battle that has pitted neighbor against neighbor over the face of commercial development here, opponents of a proposed Wal-Mart store suffered a major defeat yesterday when local officials voted not to impose tighter zoning limits on new retail buildings.
The Kent County commissioners voted 2-1 against a zoning amendment that would have effectively scuttled plans to build TC the giant store on the site of a former airstrip on the northern outskirts of this county seat.
Yesterday's vote, which was cast in front of about 40 grim-faced opponents of the so-called megastore, gives the developers a crucial go-ahead they needed to prepare a preliminary site plan for the 98,000-square-foot retail facility.
Unless lawyers for a group opposing the store are successful in finding another way to stop it, the Wal-Mart could be open for business by fall, according to Nishan Topjian, project manager for the Greenbelt-based Colton and Laskin development firm, which is spearheading the controversial effort.
The store would become the biggest in this rural Eastern Shore county.
Opposition lawyer Philip W. Hoon, who represents the Coalition for the Preservation of Chestertown, said yesterday he will fight the Wal-Mart plan as it goes through the normal permit process.
Wal-Mart supporters say the store would bring as many as 200 jobs to the area and offer shoppers discount prices they must now travel outside the county to find.
Detractors argue that a building the size of a Wal-Mart is not in scale with other stores and that the store will force smaller retailers out of business.
Sentiment among local residents who are against the Wal-Mart proposal quickly turned emotional after yesterday's vote by the Kent County Commission.
"You're going to ruin my county; you're going to ruin my home," one woman told Mr. Topjian as he left the county courthouse where the commissioners met.
Others focused their wrath on the two commissioners who voted against an amendment to the county zoning code that would have limited Wal-Mart or any other proposed store to 50,000 square feet of floor space, just half the amount developers for the retail giant said they required.
"In my opinion, the commissioners have signed the death warrant for Kent County," said George Dean, a lawyer who moved to Chestertown from Alabama more than a decade ago. An angry Mr. Dean told commissioners they may pay for their action at the next county election.
Commission President Larry B. Beck, the only official who voted to keep the proposed store out of Kent County, pleaded for an end to the acrimony in this county of fewer than 18,000 residents.
"I think we have too nice of a county here and I don't want to see this kind of fighting going on," he said.
In what he said was an attempt to begin the healing process, Jeffrey E. Thompson, a lawyer for the developers, asked the commission to appoint a three-member panel to review architectural plans for the store.
The outcome of the vote surprised some spectators, who said they expected the amendment to pass -- and Wal-Mart to be sent elsewhere -- because it was the three commissioners who drafted the amendment and gave it to the county planning commission for review.
The planning commission later approved the amendment, and more than 100 residents packed a hearing last Thursday to discuss it.
William S. Sutton, one of two commissioners who voted against the zoning amendment yesterday, said he did so after listening to many people with different points of view.
"I had to come up with a gut feeling in the end," he said. Noting that the county's current zoning plan permits a store the size of the proposed Wal-Mart, Mr. Sutton said he concluded it would not be fair to rewrite the regulations in the midst of the controversy.
Wal-Mart developers had threatened to put a store less than four miles away in neighboring Queen Anne's County if they were prevented from building in Kent.