Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials have granted a permit to the Wal-Mart discount retail chain to bulldoze slightly less than an acre of forested wetlands to make room for a new store near the interchange of Belair Road and White Marsh Boulevard.
Wal-Mart and Baltimore County officials have said the 20-acre, mostly wooded site is a prime location for a 116,000-square-foot store and 750-car parking lot.
Residents say the store isn't needed and, if built, would destroy the last open space in an area rapidly consumed by development. During a public hearing in March, citizens protested the permit, hoping to stop the project.
DNR officials did offer the residents some consolation by agreeing to make changes in its public notification process for wetland permit applications.
During the hearing, residents complained that the permit application notice was advertised in a small local newspaper that doesn't circulate in their area. They also criticized the fact that the notification was late in the wetlands permit review process.
"We realized through the Wal-Mart case and others we were reviewing at the same time that we needed to make improvements in the citizen input part of our process," said Michael Slattery, permits section chief for the nontidal wetlands and waterways division.
Every Tuesday, DNR will publish in The Sun a list of all wetlands permit applications made in the state the previous week, Mr. Slattery said. This notification also will come earlier in the application review process, he said.
Frank Novak, a community activist who requested the March hearing, said the proposed changes in public notification are "a great step forward." But he is still upset that DNR issued the permit.
"The agency is supposed to help protect our environment and this action, in my opinion, doesn't do that," he said.
Mr. Slattery said the Wal-Mart application met all of his agency's requirements. In conjunction with the wetlands permit, the state Department of the Environment has issued a water quality certification for the project.
However, the store's construction is still awaiting final approval from the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, Mr. Slattery said.
In return for the DNR permit, Wal-Mart must restore twice as much wetlands acreage as it will destroy. Several possible sites have been offered along the Bird River watershed.
The wetlands that would be destroyed are part of the Whitemarsh Run drainage basin. The stream empties into the Bird River.
Baltimore County officials have already approved zoning changes for the store.