General Growth Properties, the owner of White Marsh Mall, has spent more than $200,000 — and expects to spend more — on a petition drive aimed at blocking a competitor mall that would be built just a few miles away.
Meanwhile, Paragon Outlet Partners has run its own "decline to sign" campaign. The Baltimore-based company wants to build a 100-store outlet mall that would offer shoppers an alternative to White Marsh Mall.
The development tussle has taken on the feel of a political campaign, with petition drives, direct mail, robocalls, and radio ads — and it's not the first in Baltimore County, where development has perennially been a controversial topic. While some support the projects and economic benefits they bring, others worry about traffic congestion and sprawl.
At issue is a zoning law approved by the Baltimore County Council in August. The measure allows outlet malls on properties near Interstate 95 with a certain type of zoning — provisions that gave a green light to the project proposed by Paragon.
General Growth, which also owns malls in Towson and Columbia, says it wants Baltimore County voters to decide whether to uphold or reject the zoning law.
"We have a $300 million asset that we're going to protect," said Lisa Bisenius, White Marsh Mall's general manager.
"As developers, we all need to be held to the same rules and regulations," Bisenius said. "To have those changed midstream for one particular developer doesn't seem to make sense."
An arm of the Chicago-based company is the sole donor to a committee pushing the petition, according to documents filed with the Baltimore County Board of Elections.
The drive has already filed petitions with 30,008 signatures, more than the 26,414 required to place the question on the county's 2016 general election ballot. The deadline to submit the petitions is Wednesday. The county elections board will then review the signatures to verify that enough registered voters have signed.
Other local zoning disputes have spawned petition drives — and large-scale efforts to sway the public. Three years ago, a failed petition drive tried to stop zoning decisions that allowed a project called Foundry Row at the former Solo Cup site on Reisterstown Road.
Financial statements filed with the elections board are the first formal acknowledgment that General Growth was behind the latest petition drive, which has paid workers to gather signatures across the county, in their malls and at events such as the Maryland State Fair in Timonium.
The drive has also included direct-mail pieces and radio ads, and the mall set up a drive-in area near its food court to collect signatures.
Officials previously said the company "supported" the drive, and Bisenius said she thought the mall's involvement was "no secret."
"We just wanted to keep the focus on the issues," she said.
Paragon has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on direct mail, robo-calls and other advertising, said R. Kelvin Antill, a partner in the company. He is not yet required to file any financial disclosures with elections officials.
In its "decline to sign" campaign, Paragon has been telling voters that the anti-zoning petition is an anti-competition ploy and that traffic and stormwater improvements in the area won't happen if the outlet mall planned near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 43 isn't approved.
Antill said the outlet mall would provide jobs and give an economic boost to White Marsh — arguments also made by County Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat who sponsored the bill allowing the Paragon project. The measure passed the council unanimously.
Bevins said she's sick of seeing petition gatherers staked out at shopping centers and approaching customers in stores in the area.
"It saddens me that White Marsh is willing to spend this much money to fight a project instead of spending the money on the mall," said Bevins, referring to the 34-year-old White Marsh Mall.
Prior to the council bill, the outlet mall proposal had been tangled for more than a year in zoning appeals brought by White Marsh Mall and some nearby residents.
White Marsh's petition drive has focused on what the company describes as a need to "protect the process" for zoning in the county. Company officials say citizen input was undercut by the outlet mall bill.
"We're just trying to do what we can to make the collective voices heard," Bisenius said.
Bisenius said the company's goal is to gather twice the needed signatures by Wednesday's deadline. The mall has aligned with some community groups that oppose the outlet mall — mainly on issues related to traffic and stormwater runoff.
Antill said the outlet mall project would add an exit ramp from Route 7 onto Route 43 to help traffic.
He said the company has also agreed to install modern stormwater controls, conceding to residents' concerns about polluted runoff reaching White Marsh Run and the Bird River.
Still, he acknowledged, it's likely that his opponents will gather enough signatures to put the law on the ballot.
In the meantime, Antill said, his team is refining the mall's design and moving forward with other county and state approvals needed for the project.
He said the company hopes to break ground in the spring — even if it means starting construction with the ballot question hanging over its head. Under that timetable, the outlet mall would open a year after that, he said.
"All of that is still going on while we spend money and the mall tries to stop us," he said.
Antill declined to name any stores that might be in the outlet mall, but said there's "strong tenant demand." Paragon outlet malls in other cities feature stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5th, True Religion, Movado, Banana Republic and J.Crew.