Howard County's Planning Board won't vote on plans for a Wegmans supermarket in Columbia until Jan. 31, but a vital element of the project was decided last month out of public view.
The traffic plan for the 160,000-square-foot, two-story store and its 939 parking spaces was approved internally by county planners in December without a public hearing, said county planning supervisor Kent Sheubrooks.
"I was surprised," said Grace Kubofcik, co-president of the county League of Women Voters, who attended a Planning Board hearing on the building plans last week. "I was taken aback by that staff report."
Based partly on the county's approval of the traffic plan, Sheubrooks recommended that the Planning Board approve the Wegmans buildings for the 12.2-acre site at McGaw Road and Snowden River Parkway. The store would be topped by a 92-foot-high clock tower, described as a key architectural feature by Wegmans officials, and would face a two-level parking garage served by a long driveway.
"We've passed all the tests and had our plans approved," Wegmans attorney Richard Talkin told the board at the hearing, just after Sheubrooks' recommendation. "We've met all the criteria."
Six witnesses testified in favor of Wegmans, including Janice Oliver of Columbia, who said: "We've waited a very long time - much too long - to have a business like Wegmans."
She, like Stuart Lamb, said that the competition would force Giant and Safeway to improve their stores and create jobs. About 650 people staff a Wegmans store.
"I see all of them bringing their game up," Lamb said.
A Trader Joe's market opened recently near the Wegmans site, and a Harris Teeter is nearing completion in Kings Contrivance Village Center. Another is planned for Maple Lawn.
But Wegmans critics said the developer's traffic study was flawed and complained that they had no idea the traffic plan was approved.
"I think it was an end run-around on their part," said Carvel "Buddy" Mays, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 27, whose members work for Giant and Safeway markets.
Wegmans is a nonunion store.
"It's another way the county doesn't allow citizen input," said Torrey Jacobsen Jr., executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Retail Food Industry Joint Labor Management Fund.
Mays and Jacobsen led a group of about 50 opponents of Wegmans at the hearing.
Mays, an Ellicott City resident, has appealed a September Planning Board decision allowing the industrially zoned land in the Sieling Industrial Center to be used for a supermarket - a ruling that he contends amounts to illegal rezoning. He vowed to appeal any new board approval of the site plan.
The board agreed to accept more written testimony through this month before a discussion and voting session scheduled for Jan. 31.
Despite Sheubrooks' report, most of the testimony at last week's hearing dwelt on traffic.
"We're building significant excess capacity along northbound Snowden River Parkway, and we're doubling the lanes on McGaw from two to four," testified Wes Guckert, whose Traffic Group firm did the study approved by county officials.
A warehouse most recently used for filming the HBO television series The Wire would have to be demolished for the Wegmans project. County and store officials said Wegmans would install more than the required landscaping and pay for a sidewalk along Snowden River Parkway.
But several residents of the area said traffic is too congested, and a Pennsylvania-based traffic expert hired by Wegmans critics questioned the assumptions the county approved.
"Snowden River Parkway cannot handle the traffic it has now," said Ron Yaffe, one of several residents who live near Rustling Leaf, just south of the store site.
"The only solution is to build a 12-lane highway," Yaffe said.
Phillip Rousseau, a retired supermarket meat-cutter who lives off Rustling Leaf, said, "It's almost impossible to turn left [north] during rush hour. Wegmans will only add to this problem."
Frank Tavani, the expert hired by the critics, said the Traffic Group's study was flawed because it used measurements designed for stores less than half the size of the proposed Wegmans and did not measure traffic at all on Saturdays, when mid-day traffic on Snowden River Parkway is sometimes heavier than during weekday rush hours.
"The report is incorrect," Tavani said.
Guckert defended his study.
"We followed the county's rules," he said. "He's saying the county didn't know what it was doing."
County Council Chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said the public often disputes traffic studies.
"People feel that the traffic studies are not credible," she said. "Perhaps we need to look at the regulations on traffic."
Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, who co-sponsored a resolution that created a citizens task force to examine ways for the public to have more say in planning issues, said people often feel left out.
She said she is trying to solve the traffic problem at Snowden River Parkway and Rustling Leaf, regardless of the Wegmans decision.