When free-market forces collide with government regulations, the shock waves can travel far.
They've been felt in Hampstead, where the proposed Oakmont Green shopping center has forced the town government to reconsider the role it plays in deciding how much retail space is desirable.
The planned shopping center would include a 42,716-square-foot grocery store and 13,800 square feet of additional retail space on the east side of Route 30 across from Brodbeck Road.
Opponents of the new shopping center say there is no need for more retail space in Hampstead, and it's the town's duty to prevent over-development.
Some town officials said they think the town shouldn't be in the business of deciding how much retail space is too much.
"Should the town get in the business of outlawing free enterprise?" asked Town Manager John Riley.
"Competition is good," said Hampstead Zoning Commission Chairman Arthur Moler.
But David Cordish, an opponent of Oakmont Green and one of the owners of North Carroll Plaza, a shopping center across Route 30 from the proposed development, said: "Zoning laws, by definition, are a restriction on free commerce."
Fears for plaza
North Carroll Plaza's manager, Glenn L. Weinberg, said the plaza was already losing one of its anchor stores, Ames, which is closing. He said North Carroll Plaza would be 80 percent vacant if Super Thrift makes good on its plan to move to the new Oakmont Green plaza.
Mr. Cordish said it was true Oakmont Green would cost him money. "I'm not happy about losing money. I'm very unhappy about losing money," he said.
But he said he was also bothered by the way Hampstead officials acted.
"It's the way they have gone about the zoning that I think is outrageous," he said.
"I've been in the business 25 years. I've never seen the likes of this particular process."
Until January, the Hampstead code said that in the case of planned business centers like the Oakmont Green shopping center, the planning commission had to ascertain there was a need for the center before granting approval, backed up with market studies and similar evidence.
But in January, the town changed its zoning code.
Zoning officials said that Oakmont Green's storm water management pond, about which questions had been raised, met the new code.
The council also removed the requirement that the Planning and Zoning Commission ascertain there is a "need" before approving a new business center.
Traffic considerations also have been removed from the section on planned business centers. Mr. Riley said the traffic clause was redundant.
Hampstead Mayor Clint Becker said all developments in the town, whether residential or commercial, have to meet adequate-facilities requirements, including traffic-capacity requirements.
Mr. Moler said that under the revised Hampstead law, the commission still has the power to investigate need and traffic issues if it chooses.
Mr. Moler said the commission probably would ask for a traffic study for any proposed business center. Whether the commission would ask for a study of need would depend, he said, on community reaction to the proposal under consideration.
North Carroll Plaza is not within Hampstead town limits. The proposed Oakmont Green shopping center would be within the town limits.
However, Mr. Moler said that was not a consideration on his part, and the point had not come up in discussions.
The need for the proposed center has been hotly debated.
Opponents of the Oakmont Green development submitted a market study last July that said there are vacancies in North Carroll Plaza and in the Roberts Field and Hampstead Village shopping centers.
Mr. Weinberg said: "How can anyone say there's the need for another shopping center?"
He questioned whether the town was acting in the public interest when it changed its laws in January.
Mr. Cordish said: "It's obvious they did it for Oakmont."
He said that amounted to "spot legislation," the changing of laws to benefit particular individuals. He said his firm is considering mounting a legal challenge to the Hampstead code changes.
Mr. Weinberg said Friday a legal challenge was "imminent."
Town officials denied that they had changed the law simply to suit Oakmont Green developers.
Mr. Riley said the changes to the Hampstead code were general. They apply to all land in the town, he said, not just the Oakmont Green site.
He said the town changed its laws because the Oakmont Green case brought to light some problems in the Hampstead code. He said the laws would have been changed eventually even without Oakmont Green.
Attorney Richard C. Murray, of the firm Walsh & Fisher, which represents Hampstead, said he thought the changes to the town's laws were "entirely valid."
He said he would "have not the slightest problem" with representing the town to uphold the changes.
Scott Fischer, a planner with Carroll County who is the liaison between the Hampstead Planning and Zoning Commission and the county, said that although "it looks pretty bad," he didn't think the Hampstead law changes were designed to help Oakmont Green.
He said he believed the changes were made because the Oakmont Green project highlighted several shortcomings in the
town's zoning ordinance.
Mr. Riley said one problem with asking the town planning commission to ascertain need for a new shopping center is that "need is kind of a nebulous thing."
He said four studies of need or traffic considerations could produce four different conclusions, depending on who commissioned them.
Scribner Sheafor, chief of local planning with the Maryland Office of Planning, said he thinks most Maryland local jurisdictions do not require a market analysis to show need before approving a business center.
Mr. Riley said the need and traffic requirements came into the Hampstead code in 1972, when the town lifted much of the wording of Carroll County law, including the part about planned business centers, into the town code.
Some other towns did the same, including Manchester. Today, Manchester's laws also include the need and traffic-analysis requirements for planned business centers.
However, Manchester Assistant Zoning Administrator Miriam DePalmer said the town hasn't had any business centers proposed since the ordinance was adopted.
Unless Oakmont Green's opponents successfully challenge the town's law, the development is likely to go forward.
On Feb. 22, the Oakmont Green developers reintroduced the project under the revised town law, and the Hampstead Planning and Zoning Commission approved the site plan.
The project's opponents questioned whether the commission had jurisdiction to approve the plan while it is under appeal in Carroll County Circuit Court.
However, attorney Richard C. Murray said the plan was reintroduced under the revised law. He said, "To me, that seems a new, fresh case and it was entirely proper" for the planning commission to act on it.
Mr. Cordish said that under the revised law there was nothing he could challenge in the Oakmont Green site plan itself.
"There's nothing in the plan that you can complain about," he said, "because they don't have any law left."
History of the Oakmont Green center:
Aug. 31, 1992 -- The Hampstead Planning and Zoning Commission approves Oakmont Green retail center site plan.
Dec. 7 -- Hampstead Board of Zoning Appeals says Oakmont Green retail center does not meet the town's storm water management requirements and cannot go forward.
The Oakmont Green developer appeals the decision in Carroll XTC County Circuit Court.
Opponents of Oakmont Green project also appeal, saying the plan fails to meet other requirements in addition to storm water management problems mentioned by the Board of Zoning Appeals. The opponents say there is no demonstrated need for Oakmont Green and that it has not been shown that the center would not cause traffic congestion.
Jan. 19, 1993 -- The Hampstead Town Council votes to revamp the town's zoning laws.
Feb. 22 -- The Hampstead Planning and Zoning Commission approves Oakmont Green retail center's site plan in light of the revisions.
Feb. 26 -- North Carroll Plaza Manager Glenn L. Weinberg says a legal challenge to Hampstead's code revisions is "imminent."