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Change of mind benefits retailer

The Baltimore Sun

The plan to build a huge Wegmans Food Market at the location of an east Columbia warehouse where the hit HBO series "The Wire" is filming is the beneficiary of an abrupt about-face by county zoning officials.

Three years ago, the same idea was rejected by county officials who said industrial zoning on the site, at the corner of Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road, would not allow food stores.

But Marsha McLaughlin, the county planning director, said yesterday that government officials changed their minds on zoning after months of discussion with county lawyers about what she said are the outdated definitions in laws written decades ago. In addition, Wegmans officials really wanted that site and continued their interest, she said.

"They wanted to be central to Columbia with good road access. They picked this site because they were very keen on it," McLaughlin said.

The food store company submitted plans Monday to Howard County planning officials and said the store could open as early as 2009.

On the zoning front, McLaughlin said standards written long ago do not always apply to current retailing trends.

"Everything has evolved. No one envisioned warehouse-sized retail" when the zoning rules for the Seiling Industrial Park were written, McLaughlin said. Then, she said, the law allowed for "ancillary [commercial] uses -- usually to support office workers" in industrial parks -- like banks or other small retail establishments.

But at 160,000 square feet, with a two-story parking garage, the proposed Wegmans store is really closer to a warehouse than to any 1970s version of a retail store.

The zoning language is vague, McLaughlin said, and does say that uses that are "ancillary to, or compatible with" permitted industrial uses are allowed.

After careful review, she said, county lawyers decided a big warehouse food store is legal on the manufacturing-zoned site.

Meanwhile, two other grocery stores have announced they are coming to Columbia. Harris Teeter is building a store in Kings Contrivance Village Center and Trader Joe's is scheduled to open a store this year at Gateway Overlook, a new shopping center at Routes 175 and 108. The Trader Joe's site is less than two miles from the proposed Wegmans location.

And while many in the county welcome a Wegmans, others are concerned that the gourmet grocer could hurt food stores in Columbia's village centers.

"It's almost like you know the public wants it [Wegmans]. You know the market is there, and yet you still have this desire to have the village centers remain as successful as they can be," said Del. Guy Guzzone, a former county councilman.

County Executive Ken Ulman said, "Even without Wegmans, I have concerns about the future of some of the village centers. The problem is more about people's changed shopping habits."

Ulman said the county "needs to create zoning that allows the village centers to evolve. They may be different, with more residential, recreation, convenience retail."

The Giant Food store in Wilde Lake closed last year without a Wegmans on the scene, McLaughlin pointed out. "Ignoring the market doesn't make things any better," she said.

At the same time, she said, she is concerned about Columbia's village centers. "There are a variety of new players in the grocery market. Recognizing current realities is more realistic than acting like the world is the same as when the village centers were first built."

McLaughlin said she sometimes gets e-mails at 2 a.m. accusing her of blocking Wegmans and demanding the company be allowed to build.

But Del. Elizabeth Bobo and her husband, Lloyd Knowles, a former County Council member, were critical of the idea that Howard County should adapt to national retail trends.

Both said they love the idea of Wegmans, but Knowles said, "I'm not so sure I'm in favor of it" if it will hurt the village centers.

"We in Howard are in such an advantageous position. I don't think we have to go along with commercial interests. We ought to set our own destiny," he said.

Bobo made a similar point.

"We are one of the most desirable places, not only to live but to do business and develop. We should take that and show leadership and show what communities should be like."

Plans that Wegmans submitted to the county Monday reveal that the company wants to build a two-level store in back of a two-level parking garage that would hold 840 of the 941 parking spaces on the 12.2 acre site.

Shoppers would enter a 43,500-square-foot mezzanine -- as big as many modern supermarkets -- directly from the second floor of the parking garage.

A traffic study submitted with the plan shows entry only from McGaw Road, directly opposite Apple Ford. The study said McGaw would need widening for extra turn lanes at Stanford Boulevard, next to Apple Ford, and a traffic light would be needed there, too.

Without the changes, McGaw and Stanford would be a failing intersection during evening peak rush hours, the study said.

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