Developers of the 1.4 million-square-foot Arundel Mills mall have won approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to begin filling in wetlands on its 400-acre wooded site -- the final hurdle to the $250 million complex under construction near Route 100 and Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
With the issuance Friday of the permit to build in federally regulated wetlands, Mills Corp. plans to fill in 1.4 acres of wetlands and more than 3,000 feet of stream channels in the Piny Run watershed in Hanover, two miles west of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
"When you're plunking down a mall on a 400-acre site, [just] 1.4 acres is pretty good," said Jeff Trulick, a corps biologist who is project manager for the corp's environmental assessment of Arundel Mills.
"It'll change the watershed, there's no doubt about that," said Trulick. "But I think over the long term it will recover a lot of its current functions."
Trulick acknowledged that one of the three streams on the property "will take a pretty good hit" but noted that Mills' original proposal would have destroyed 15 acres of wetlands.
"I think the Mills Corp. did a pretty good job of minimizing the effects on Piny Run," the main tributary on the site, he said.
Members of Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development -- a grass-roots coalition that formed this summer in hopes of derailing the mall -- say they're not surprised by the corps' decision on the wetlands application filed by Mills Corp., an Arlington, Va.-based company.
State environmental officials signed off on a similar permit in August.
"As long as the elected officials wanted this thing. it was going to happen," said Gary Mauler, a Jessup resident and organizer of mall opponents.
In a door-to-door sweep of northwest county neighborhoods, the group collected nearly 1,000 signatures of people opposed to the mall.
They sent the petitions to the Anne Arundel County executive, County Council members, and state and federal regulators reviewing the Arundel Mills project.
The Mills Corp. began bulldozing trees in July for the 200-store complex, which has been billed as an economic development boon to the county.
More tax income
Mills officials have said that the mall will generate more than $4.2 million annually in sales taxes for the county and create about 3,000 jobs when it is fully leased.
They also said the retail center is situated to become a regional shopping destination, similar to its Potomac Mills, built in 1986. That discount outlet mall in Prince William County, Va., has become one of Virginia's top tourist attraction.
Scheduled to open by Thanksgiving 2000, Arundel Mills has had the support of most local elected officials since it was proposed two years ago.
Mills officials spent more than a year discussing the project with community groups before going to the County Council in the summer of 1998 to seek a zoning change for the project.
In response to residents' requests, the developer agreed to build a separate shopping center with a grocery store and to pay for improvements to roads not related to Arundel Mills.
Project opponents say more than the mall's effects on the Piny Run watershed, their main concern is increased air pollution they fear could result from mall traffic.
In August, the regional Transportation Steering Committee -- a powerful group of elected officials that approves regional road projects -- voted to use outdated 1990 traffic data so Baltimore could stay within federal emissions limits on paper and meet federal guidelines for new road projects.
If planners had used the more timely 1996 data -- showing that vehicle emissions and air pollution in Greater Baltimore exceeded federal limits -- several major road projects could have been put on hold, including one tied to Arundel Mills.
Anne Arundel County agreed to sell $28 million in bonds to finance construction of an interchange on Baltimore-Washington Parkway to accommodate mall traffic. The bonds are backed by property taxes from the Arundel Mills project.
"It's a matter of money and construction projects vs. people's lives," Mauler said yesterday.
A report released this month by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group said that Anne Arundel has the worst ozone pollution on the East Coast. Earlier reports also have focused attention on the problem locally -- including a 1996 study by the American Lung Association ranking Baltimore second only to Los Angeles in hospital care resulting from respiratory illness.
Ozone is a chemical stew formed by pollution from various sources, including cars, smokestacks and lawn mowers.
"There's already a pollution problem, and nothing at all is being done to try to mitigate the effects of new traffic and pollution associated with the mall," said Hank Goldstein, executive director of the Baltimore Regional Partnership, a coalition of civic and environmental groups.
Asking for a second look
Goldstein said that his organization, with the Environmental Defense Fund and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has asked the Transportation Steering Committee to reconsider its decision.
"We're asking them to use the newer numbers or include pollution mitigation measures," Goldstein said.
"It doesn't seem like there's anything that can be done to stop the mall."