The president of the state Senate has stepped into a longstanding fight over a commercial project in Deale, asking Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens to delay construction of the supermarket and strip mall until the project's approval can be reviewed.
In a letter last week, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. urged Owens to allow those opposed to the project to argue their case. He also suggested an independent panel be appointed to review the proposal, study its environmental impact and assess the issue of traffic congestion.
"This situation is not dissimilar to the one you encountered when you assumed office and discovered PACE [county Department of Planning and Code Enforcement] fast-tracking construction waivers and approving insider development deals," Miller wrote.
"You stepped in then, and I am requesting that you do so now."
An official for PACE said the request for an independent review questions the integrity of the department and its findings.
"They're saying we didn't do our job," Merril E. Plait, the department's chief engineer, said yesterday.
Owens was on vacation this week and has not seen the letter, said her spokesman, Andrew C. Carpenter.
Miller was at a conference in Chicago and could not be reached for comment.
Miller's intervention is another move in a two-year battle to stop Safeway Inc. from building an 88,000-square- foot shopping center on a 16-acre site at Routes 256 and 258 in Deale in south Anne Arundel County.
The company has owned the land for almost 10 years and has been working with the county to develop the site into a large-scale supermarket and strip mall.
From the start, opposition has been strong. Residents - led by an environmental group, South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development - and local business owners rallied against the project, posting signs, distributing fliers and collecting petitions.
The project seemed to have died in January when Safeway was denied a waiver to build on a 100-year flood plain, but the county reversed its decision in early June, saying the site is not on a flood plain.
The decision, based on the county code definition of what constitutes a flood plain, all but cleared the way for Safeway, which must obtain waivers and apply for permits.
Safeway's original property - a 9-acre tract at the site - was a flood plain, but after the company acquired an additional 7 acres, the property passed the county's "48-Inch Pipe Rule," which defines a flood plain.
The rule states that if water from a severe storm can adequately drain through a pipe 48 inches in diameter, the area is not considered a flood plain.
Safeway submitted information to the county May 23 supporting its claim that the area was not a flood plain.
Officials from PACE reviewed the data and ruled a few weeks later that the site was not a flood plain.
In his letter, Miller said he was concerned that opponents of the project were not given an opportunity to review and comment on information submitted by Safeway before PACE Director Denis Canavan made his ruling.
"The new Director of PACE, abruptly and without a hearing or prior notice to the affected parties, issued a finding that no waiver would be required," Miller wrote.
Plait said it is common procedure for developers to submit their own analysis to the county for review. County engineers check the information for compliance to code and sound engineering practices.
"We checked their information and found they were accurate and in compliance to the code," Plait said.
Miller wrote about the department "serving in an advisory capacity to Safeway regarding application for a roadway improvement waiver, to minimize community opposition to the project."
Historic, scenic road
Plait said the county recommended that the developer obtain the road waiver, which would drop the requirement to do any buffer improvements to Swamp Circle Road.
The road is considered historic and scenic, and the county and community do not want major changes.
"We're not advisors to [Safeway]," Plait said. "In a sense, we are representing the community on this issue."
Plait said the department has looked into concerns raised by engineers hired by those opposed to the project, but no decisions have been reversed.
"We still feel Safeway is in compliance," Plait said.