Wal-Mart clears hurdle to opening county store


Wal-Mart is coming to Howard County -- perhaps as early as December.

The company cleared a major hurdle in early June when the county approved a preliminary site plan for its first Howard outlet on 22 acres of vacant land at the northeast corner of U.S. 29 and U.S. 40 in Ellicott City.

Such approvals usually mean developers can go "full speed ahead" with their projects, county planning director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said last week. Other county planning officials said the nation's largest retailer could open the doors of a new store there as early as December.

Wal-Mart's Howard representative, Maury Levin of KLNB Realtors, agreed Friday that a December opening is possible but added that "everything would have to happen just right." In any event, he said, the new store is to open no later than the first quarter of next year.

The "huge amount of growth" in area retailing persuaded Wal-Mart to put a retail store on the Ellicott City site rather than one of its discount warehouses, known as Sam's Club, which originally was planned there, Mr. Levin said.

The move by Wal-Mart is part of a retail explosion in Howard County.

Opus East, a Minneapolis-based development company, is planning to bring eight large retailers to Long Gate Shopping Center, a 414,736-foot complex proposed for property bordered by U.S. 29, Route 100, Route 103 and Long Gate Parkway. Long Gate, which would be second in size in the county to The Mall in Columbia, is expected to include warehouse-type stores such as Target, a Minneapolis-based discount chain.

In April, the Rouse Co. announced plans for the new Chalice shopping complex, a $45-million grouping of "category-killer" stores, similar to those in its Snowden Square development -- on 73 acres off Route 175 between Dobbin Road and Snowden Square.

The Wal-Mart store planned for Ellicott City will be about the same size of the chain's newly opened outlet at the old Montgomery Ward's site on U.S. 40 in Baltimore County, but it will be a little smaller than the Wal-Mart in Laurel, Mr. Levin said.

Having two other Wal-Mart stores within a 25-minute drive should not adversely affect the planned Ellicott City store, Mr. Levin said. "Believe it or not, [Wal-Mart] is more of a neighborhood store," he said. "It is more of a local shopping trip, like a supermarket. It is not intended to pull people from 50 miles away."

As a result, word of Wal-Mart's impending arrival is not warming the hearts of some neighboring retailers. "All the Wal-Marts do is come in and undercut the people who own stores and have been here for years," said Gene Gray, owner of Mel's TV Inc., a sales and repair store in the Normandy Shopping Center, near the planned new store.

"It's very unfair, because small owners like us are already on the edge, and now we're taking another hit," Mr. Gray said. "It will really wipe out a whole neighborhood of mom-and-pop stores. In the long run, that won't help our kids when they're looking for jobs. The only places left will be Wal-Marts and Kmarts."

Mr. Gray, who has been in business for more than 40 years, said he used to sell 10 to 15 TVs a week in the late 1970s and early but is lucky now if he sells two a month. "When big, giant stores like Wal-Mart come in, we became the rats," he said. "We have to take what crumbs are left and work around their 'super prices,' but we end up undercutting ourselves."

Not all nearby retailers are unhappy. Richard Keehfus, owner of Triangle Auto Parts in the Triangle Shopping Center at U.S. 40 and U.S. 29, said a new Wal-Mart will bring more traffic to the area, potential customers from whom he expects to draw business.

"A store like Wal-Mart couldn't hurt this business because it's a specialty," he said. "If people want to save 50 cents and stand in line for an hour, then I guess they're getting a deal at Wal-Mart. But most people don't want to wait that long for anything, so they will keep coming here."

The planned store for Ellicott City is one of 200 new stores Wal-Mart plans to open nationwide within the next year. The Arkansas-based company has more than 2,100 stores.

The property on which it will be built is mostly owned by Mangione Family Enterprises, the owners and developers of Turf Valley Country Club. The Mangiones plan to build 200 townhouses on adjoining property.

For a while, it appeared that Wal-Mart might never open in Ellicott City.

The retailer lost one of the longest piecemeal zoning battles in the history of the county in 1992 when the County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board, voted to deny a petition that would have allowed both a Wal-Mart and a Sam's Club at the same site.

Residents of the nearby Ellicott Meadows development and its builder, Joseph Wilder, were largely responsible for rallying opposition to the project during 18 months of hearings.

They hired attorneys and expert witnesses to oppose the company's plans, saying they would lead to traffic problems and would have a deleterious effect on existing retailers.

After losing the piecemeal case, the company and the Mangione interests submitted a similar but smaller proposal during the 1992 comprehensive rezoning. This time, they said they wanted to build only one structure on 22 acres, rather than both on 54 acres as they had proposed in August 1991.

This time, the Zoning Board agreed and granted Wal-Mart and the Mangione family the zoning they needed to build the project.

Wal-Mart and Mangione Enterprises appealed the Zoning Board's piecemeal decision to the state Court of Appeals after a Howard County circuit judge upheld it. That case is still pending but could become moot tomorrow when the deadline for filing appeals in another, much broader case expires.

That broader case is a challenge of the county's 1993 comprehensive rezoning by slow-growth advocate Susan B. Gray of Highland. The Circuit Court and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals have rejected the challenge, and it is unlikely that the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, would disagree, attorneys say.

Ms. Gray has until 5 p.m. tomorrow to ask the Court of Appeals to review the case. If no appeal is filed, the 1993 comprehensive rezoning will stand as law. Once that happens, Wal-Mart's appeal of the piecemeal zoning decision probably will be withdrawn. Ms. Gray was not available for comment Friday night.

Even if she files an appeal in the comprehensive rezoning case, Mr. Levin said, Wal-Mart probably will go ahead with its plans for the Ellicott City outlet.

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