STEVENSVILLE -- Still battling in court after seven years to build a Wal-Mart store in Chestertown, the world's largest retail chain is again at the center of controversy on the upper Eastern Shore, this time in the shadow of the Bay Bridge on Kent Island.
Neighborhood activists are staking signs, recruiting volunteers, circulating petitions and calling for a moratorium aimed at blocking a Northern Virginia developer's plans for a 155,000-square-foot store on prime U.S. 50 property.
Taking the lead is Up Against The Wal, a group of opponents that staged a public meeting that drew nearly 400 people last week.
Activists say they've logged the signatures of more than 1,000 residents who don't want the Kent Commons project, which would include a 123-room hotel and conference center, offices and restaurants.
Wal-Mart and other large retailers have generated furious opposition nationwide. Most of the Kent Island opponents say they are resigned to further commercial development along and near U.S. 50, but they object to the site, a $6 million piece of land at the foot of the Bay Bridge.
Building the store there, one activist said, would declare to hundreds of thousands of tourists who travel the route each year that they are entering "the Eastern Shore of Wal-Mart."
"I don't have anything against Wal-Mart, but it would be an absolute embarrassment to let them build on that spot," said Stan Ruddie, a photographer who has been running Up Against The Wal out of his Kent Island home. Opponents also worry that traffic from the development would further snarl two-lane Route 8, which is increasingly crowded by commuters living on Kent Island and working in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington.
Attorney Joseph A. Stevens, who represents Petrie Dierman Kuhn, the McLean, Va., firm that would develop the property, said the company plans extensive road improvements before the center opens. Architects have also taken great pains, he said, to screen the Wal-Mart center from the view of U.S. 50 motorists.
"This will not be your average Wal-Mart. There are only a couple like this in the country," said Stevens. "This is a commercial site, just like the rest of Route 50, and all the traffic concerns will have to be addressed to the satisfaction of the county and the state or the project won't go forward."
Queen Anne's County officials say they're baffled at the furor. The county's comprehensive plan is crafted to steer development to Stevensville and other parts of the U.S. 50 corridor.
The 28-acre tract near U.S. 50 and Route 8, the first exit off the eastbound span of the Bay Bridge, has been zoned for commercial development for more than 30 years.
"You'd have to live in a bubble not to know how strongly some people feel about this," said County Commissioner George M. O'Donnell. "But you can't zone for Pizza Hut and not Domino's. We can't zone to keep out Wal-Mart."
Up Against The Wal members have hired Philip W. Hoon, a Chestertown lawyer who has tied up Wal-Mart in court since 1992, fighting to keep the Arkansas-based retailer from building in the Kent County seat. Opponents there have said for years that the store, though smaller than the one proposed for Stevensville, would devastate small businesses.
"It's not about Wal-Mart, it's about a project that's out of scale for Kent Island," Hoon said. "The battle lines are drawn pretty well on this. Even if this were a housing development or some other use, it wouldn't match what the people want."
What the people want, or at least what a 16-member citizen advisory committee recommended less than two years ago for the gateway site, was a maritime resort, a tourism project that should include "a variety of water-related resort/commercial uses."
Some committee members, who were appointed to produce a Stevensville community plan that would guide growth, say the Wal-Mart project would negate more than 500 collective hours they spent on the plan over a two-year period.
"We were asked for our vision, we gave it, the commissioners approved it and now they've thrown it in the trash," said committee chairman Peter Holland, an Annapolis lawyer who has lived on Kent Island since 1995.
"Never once was Wal-Mart mentioned, never did we imagine Wal-Mart for that site," Holland said. "It's very clear that people with money and agendas want to ram this through, no matter what the people want."
A hearing on the project will be held before the county planning commission April 13, and opponents are vowing to keep up the pressure.
"This was such a stupid proposal. I thought it would just go before the planning commission and it would be over," said Ruddie. "Obviously, we're going to have to work a lot harder than that. The idea is to go every step of the way through the process and keep the heat on."