Battle lines are forming in a section of northeastern Baltimore County where residents say a proposed Wal-Mart department store will destroy the last bit of open space.
"There's going to be nothing left in this area but town houses, buildings, asphalt and concrete," said area resident Laura Harrison.
County officials say the 20 acres of wooded wetlands on the southwest corner of White Marsh Boulevard and Belair Road have little value for wildlife.
Wal-Mart officials say the site is a prime location for a 116,000-square-foot store and 750-car parking lot.
The various sides aired their views during a hearing last week by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. At issue was Wal-Mart's request for a permit to tear up slightly less than an acre of forested wetlands. The area is a natural drainage basin for White Marsh Run, part of the Bird River watershed.
Residents say the hearing was their first chance to air their viewson the project, which had its genesis four years ago. While there have been several public hearings about the site, residents say they were never told about them.
"How can we stop this project? Aren't our feelings going to mean anything at all?" asked Mrs. Harrison. "I'm just so frustrated by the process."
Jim Gracie, an environmental consultant for Wal-Mart, said the company will build an underground system to catch storm water runoff and gradually release it into the watershed. Wal-Mart also has agreed to replace the destroyed wetlands by restoring stream banks and wetlands elsewhere in the watershed.
"But that is miles away from here," said Frank Novak, a nearby resident who is opposed to the project and requested the DNR hearing. "We are getting nothing in return for what is being lost right here."
Roberta Bonham, another neighbor, asked, "What are you going to do with the wildlife there, catch all the birds and squirrels and relocate them along the Bird River?"
Before the Department of Natural Resources issues a permit, Wal-Mart must prove that there's a public need for the store and that there is no way to avoid disturbing the wetlands, said Michael Slattery, a DNR official. Mr. Gracie said the 16-acre project cannot be put on the site without destroying about an acre of wetlands.
Those statements didn't please area residents.
"We don't need another store in the area," David Kokoinakis said to applause. "We already have a Kmart and B.J.'s and White Marsh Mall."
The site is less than a mile north of a Kmart.
Residents also said the store would be better off locating north of Silver Spring Road or east of Interstate 95, on a site where building would not destroy wetlands and woods.
County officials first approved changing the zoning of the site from residential to commercial after public hearings. When plans to put an auto dealership there fell through, county officials approved the retail project last July.
Jeff Long, an area planner for the county, said that "at no time during this process was there any protest raised."
Mr. Slattery said his department has not decided on the wetlands permit and said residents' comments would be considered. A decision is expected within 45 days.