The heated battle over a proposed south county shopping center has taken a new turn, as opponents have hired an environmental lawyer to try to block a Safeway supermarket and other stores planned for a wooded site in the quiet town of Deale.
South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development Inc., which calls itself SACReD and says it has about 300 members, has retained attorney Thomas A. Deming to press its view that the project violates Anne Arundel zoning law, a contention denied by the county.
Deming's hiring occurs on the eve of dueling meetings about the 88,000-square-foot Safeway-anchored strip mall. The project continues to provoke strong emotions after years of debate and a recent reversal in the county's stance on the project.
County officials will meet with the public today to provide information and to take comments or questions, said land-use spokesman John A. Morris. The meeting will be held at Southern High School in Harwood at 7 p.m.
A week from today, Oct. 3, SACReD will meet from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Deale Elementary School. Members note that they announced their meeting first and dismiss the county's event as a "sham" designed to mollify critics of the Safeway proposal.
County Executive Janet S. Owens said she feels caught in the middle, somewhat sympathetic to the strip mall's foes but convinced that legally, she cannot stop the developer's bulldozers despite her misgivings about the center's size.
Owens said she understands why some residents fear a large new commercial development at Routes 256 and 258. But she also has the names of 2,000 people who say they want a supermarket closer to home, and she says Deale could never be overrun by development because the county has not deemed it a high-growth area.
"Personally, it terribly worries me how divisive this has become," Owens said in an interview last week. "I have had people express fear of expressing their opinion. I don't want any environment of fear in our county."
Owens has been pilloried in a biting, anonymous parody newsletter that portrays her and planning director Denis Canavan as stooges of the Safeway grocery chain. Copies have been faxed to newspapers and County Council offices.
SACReD President Amanda Spake denies any connection to the pseudo-newsletter but says its tone reflects widespread frustration in the waterfront community.
"There are a lot of angry people," she said.
The project appears to be nearing county approval after two years, but both sides predict that opponents will cause further delays by appealing to the Board of Appeals and possibly the courts.
"We think we're real close," said Chris Bell, president of Greencastle Development Co. of Annapolis, which is working for Safeway. He said he is confident that the county will approve the site plan soon and issue grading and building permits.
Owens said the county could have given the green light more than a month ago but held off to ensure that the public felt included in the process.
"We could have proceeded five weeks ago," she said. Today's meeting, she said, was called "to be as open as the county can be."
Critics say such statements reinforce a sense that the county is determined to support Safeway despite residents' objections.
"We consider the event they are doing as basically trying to legitimize sprawl," said Michael Shay, SACReD's vice president. "It's their dog-and-pony show to placate the community, and the community refuses to be placated."
The group may not have Owens on its side, but another prominent politician has expressed support. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has objected to the county's handling of the project and called for an independent panel to study it.
While assiduously working the public relations angle, SACReD also is taking a new legal tack, claiming that the project violates zoning laws.
In a letter to county planners, attorney Deming notes that 7 acres bought by Safeway to gather storm water runoff from the adjacent 9-acre strip mall site is zoned residential. He says the county code does not permit residential land to be used in such a manner for a commercial venture and has cited a case to support his argument.
"We believe this is an apparent violation of zoning," Spake said. She noted that without the 7 acres, Safeway could not satisfy the county's storm water requirements.
Morris said the storm water area would handle not only runoff from the Safeway site, but also would reduce flooding that homeowners downstream have complained about. He said it is common for a storm water management system - or a road or a water line - to serve commercial and residential properties. "It's infrastructure serving a broader area," he said. He said the zoning code does not address that point but added that it has never been an issue before.
Another attorney, Weems W. Duvall Jr., is challenging the project on behalf of Food Rite, a grocery store across the street from the proposed Safeway, and the Alliance for Rural Business, a group of local merchants.
Stephen Rogers, an engineer working with Duvall, outlined for the county 12 aspects of Safeway's engineering design that he called "fatal flaws." Merril E. Plait, the county's chief engineer, disagreed, writing in a memo that "on the contrary, the design met or exceeded all code requirements."
As recently as January, the strip mall appeared to be in doubt. That month, the county denied the grocery store chain a flood-plain waiver after concluding that the property lay in a 100-year flood plain and would be susceptible to severe flooding.
In June, the county reversed itself after Safeway engineers provided evidence that storm water on the site could be drained through a 48-inch pipe. That is the criterion for determining whether a property is a flood plain.
The reversal drew criticism from some residents. Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican whose district includes Deale, expressed doubts. Last week, he said that though the government had the right to change its stance, the decision left him with a sense of "uneasiness."