As the County Council prepares to vote on a bill that would keep a 135,000-square-foot Wal-Mart out of dilapidated Parole Plaza, County Executive Janet S. Owens is strongly signaling that she will veto the bill if it passes.
"One can assume I might," she said with a smile last week, when asked whether she would take the rare step of reversing a council decision. At another point in an interview, she said, "That's certainly where I'm heading."
Five of seven votes are needed to override a veto.
Owens - who, like members of the council, has been lobbied recently by officials of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. - expressed delight with drawings that show a brick-fronted Wal-Mart scarcely resembling most of the retail giant's outlets.
"I think it's beautiful," she said, pointing to renderings of a multistory office building planned nearby for a later phase of the old shopping center's redevelopment. "It's a blight out there," she said of the 40-year-old plaza, now largely vacant. "It's time to go forward."
One of Owens' concerns is that New Jersey developer Carl Freedman, who owns the plaza built by his family, says he may ask the city of Annapolis to annex the land if he is thwarted in developing the site.
That could set off a domino effect: Property occupied by major county taxpayers such as USinternetworking would then abut the expanded city line and could be annexed also.
Freedman has received tentative approval from county planning director Denis Canavan to move forward with the Wal-Mart proposal.
Freedman recently submitted documents aimed at winning a final go-ahead.
A close vote is expected Wednesday when the council considers the bill, which would limit any store to 80,000 square feet per story in the Parole Plaza area and in a portion of the Odenton town center.
"It could go either way - 4-3, either way," said Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat. But if the council adopts any amendments, final action on the issue would be put off until next month at the earliest.
Freedman and Wal-Mart have pulled out the stops to fight the bill and to build support for the project, the latest in a series of attempts by the developer to breathe new life into the center.
Freedman's real estate company and Wal-Mart are represented by lobbyists Charles F. Delavan and J. Shepard Tullier. In addition, Freedman has hired an Annapolis public relations company, which has compiled glossy press packets bearing a new name, "Parole Centre," and the motto, "Better Than You Remember."
The bill's sponsor, Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat, said she is trying to thwart any so-called "big box" store and not Wal-Mart specifically.
She says the proposed store does not comply with a Parole redevelopment plan adopted by the County Council in 1994 that calls for a pedestrian-friendly urban streetscape.
She said Wal-Mart officials told her they had not read that plan. "I said, 'That explains it. That explains why you want to put a suburban store into this area.'
"It looks suburban ... but it's urban. I said, 'You have a store right in the middle of where one of our grid streets is supposed to be.' "
With just days until the vote, Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, said she had not made up her mind.
"It's about the size of the buildings that should be in the core of the town center, and recognizing that that has to be balanced against Freedman wanting to develop the property," she said.
Klosterman said he is inclined to vote against the bill in its present form.
He plans to introduce an amendment to exempt Odenton because he thinks Samorajczyk's bill is solely aimed at Parole Plaza.
He may introduce a second amendment to permit the Wal-Mart to be built on the 30-acre Parole Plaza site, while imposing the size limit for any subsequent stores proposed for the area.
"I think there are compromises Barbara doesn't see," he said. "We need to get together as a council and reach a compromise."
Samorajczyk was unwilling to predict an outcome.
"The way I look at this, there is never certainty until the vote is cast, particularly a bill like this where there is tremendous pressure, tremendous lobbying," she said.