Board OKs Wegmans store

The Baltimore Sun

Wegmans has won Planning Board approval that puts it one step closer to building a 160,000-square-foot upscale supermarket in East Columbia.

The Planning Board voted unanimously Thursday night to approve a zoning amendment that would allow a large grocer to build on an industrially zoned property near Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road.

However, an official from the Mid-Atlantic Retail Food Industry Joint Labor Management Fund said his group might appeal the ruling. Wegmans, which plans to employ 650 at the proposed Columbia store, is a nonunion employer.

"They are opening up the Pandora's box of big-box stores," said Torrey Jacobsen Jr., executive director of the organization, on Friday. "We are looking into all our legal options."

During the hearing before the vote, union representatives said the advent of Wegmans would put other grocers out of business, bring unwanted traffic and alter Columbia's village-like setting with another big-box store.

"It is the wrong way for this county to go," said Buddy Mays, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 27, which represents Safeway and Giant workers.

Mays said that when Wegmans opened its Hunt Valley store in 2005, competing supermarkets up to 10 miles away lost 20 percent of their business.

Meanwhile, expressing traffic concerns, a member of the same union has filed an appeal to postpone a Wegmans project in Prince George's County, according to The Washington Post.

If the grocery superstore were to be built, it would not be the first retail use on the industrial property. Under the final development plan set in 1972, some commercial uses were allowed on the site known as the Sieling Industrial Center. But the supermarket sought to change the language after county officials rejected the same idea three years ago.

Some individuals have voiced concern that Wegmans would threaten the viability of Columbia's smaller village shopping centers by drawing business away from the grocery stores that anchor them.

But residents attending the Planning Board meeting welcomed the Rochester, N. Y.-based store.

"The village concept is a broken concept," said Joshua Proteau, an Owen Brown resident. "I think many of the improvements Columbia needs has been stifled by the people focused on the status quo."

Proteau said he drives to Silver Spring and Baltimore to shop at Whole Foods Market for produce.

Kings Contrivance resident Jim Hookey said he hoped the grocer would come to Columbia.

"Stores in our area, as nice as Columbia is, are an embarrassment," Hookey said.

Six residents testified in favor of the store, including community activist Joan Lancos, who brought a letter from the Hickory Ridge Village Board declaring its support for the store.

Technical staff at the Department of Planning and Zoning had recommended the amendment be approved. General Growth Properties, which owns most of Columbia, also agreed to the change.

Planning board members said the use of the land fit with the general area.

"If it is a big box, the big boxes are already in that area, so I don't see it as contradictory," said Planning Board member Linda Dombrowski.

Before building the store, Wegmans must still gain approval of its site-development plan. Store representatives have expressed hope that approval could be obtained by this fall. Even with a quick approval process, it could not open a store before mid-2009. In other matters, the Planning Board approved a sketch plan to divide a tract known as the Weller property into seven single-family home lots and two open-space lots. The property is on the northeast corner of the intersection of Ilchester and Landing roads.

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