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Overflow crowd protests Bel Air Walmart at county development meeting

Hundreds of residents packed the Harford County's council chambers at 212 South Bond Street on Wednesday morning, where the county's development advisory committee recommended postponing the controversial Bel Air Walmart project to address community concerns.

The DAC chairman, Moe Davenport, strove to give everyone interested a chance to speak and told the crowd the DAC is not approving the plans until Walmart satisfies all the requirements of traffic mitigation, site design and other issues.

He said a development "of this magnitude" could take one to two years to move forward and Walmart could still turn around and walk away.

"Obviously this is a passionate issue. We take it very seriously here. We're going to review the plans. It's back in Walmart's court. We denied the plans as submitted," Davenport said.

The meeting was moved from its usual location across the street but the space still proved too small, and dozens of residents opposed to the store at Plumtree Road and Route 924 were left to stand outside.

A handful of security guards strictly enforced the fire code by forbidding anyone to stand inside the chambers.

The county planning and zoning director, Pete Gutwald, attended the meeting, as did County Councilman Dion Guthrie.

More picketers outside continued to hold "No Walmart" signs and chanted loudly as the meeting went on.

More than 50 people were still trying to get into the building 10 minutes before the scheduled 9 a.m. start. By 9:30, the line stretched more than a block long to Hays Street, according to a caller who was standing in the line.

County Risk Management Director Rocky Gonzalez said he counted about 200 people waiting outside at the peak of the crowd.

Capacity of the council chamber is 259 people, Harford County government spokesman Bob Thomas said.

The chamber has about 175 permanent seats. In anticipation of the large crowd, Thomas said, folding chairs were added. It still wasn't enough.

The Walmart plan review was the only item on Wednesday's DAC meeting agenda. The meeting ended at 12:30, three and a half hours after it started.

The proposed new Walmart location is on the south side of Plumtree Road between Routes 924 and 24 in the Bel Air South area. It's a location and a plan many residents say they feel is unnecessary and could be detrimental to the community.

Other residents, however, have expressed support for the project and a counter-movement to back the new store has surfaced in recent weeks.

Following the meeting, Walmart representatives sent a statement to The Aegis saying they were pleased to get comments from DAC members and know plenty of residents who support the store.

"We heard from a number of county agencies and state agencies about their requirements for our proposed new store, and we will work to meet those requirements," the statement said. "The State Highway Administration requested some clarification of specific features included in our traffic plan, and we will provide that information."

"Walmart has submitted to the county the signatures of more than 1,400 county residents who support our project. Many others in the community support our plans and their voices will be heard in the days ahead," the statement read.

Traffic, access issues

Richard Zeller, of the State Highway Administration, got several rounds of applause for saying the SHA will consider the county council's request to deny Walmart access from Route 924 to the planned store site.

Zeller said the traffic impact study needs to be revised to recognize government and developer needs to better mitigate four major nearby intersections, and SHA suggests postponing the project until further traffic studies are done.

"There's quite a lot of improvements, given that SHA is asking initially that the traffic study be revised," he said. "Since we're going to revise the study, it's probably not wise to mention all the improvements."

Davenport said Walmart now has to satisfy the appropriate requirements.

"There's a lot of work that has to be done," he said. "The traffic situation is obviously an issue. The functional classification of those intersections is an issue."

"This is obviously not approved. They have to identify that they've met all the zoning requirements and that has not been done yet," he said.

Opponents weigh in

Jeff Dinger, founder of the Bel Air South Community Foundation, said the roughly 1,200 petitions that were submitted in support of the Walmart are mostly coming from places like Forest Hill and Aberdeen and do not represent those that live in the area.

"We're still gathering [petitions] and we're gathering them from where it matters," Dinger said, noting that "in this age of sustainable growth and corporate responsibility," putting up "another empty hulk of a store" does not make sense.

Dinger said he is a Realtor and loves development, but "I don't love it when it goes against ethics and this is ethically" incomprehensible.

With a planned cultural arts center and residential buildings planned in the area, Walmart will make the area almost impossible to navigate, he said.

State Del. Glen Glass, wearing a cowboy hat and Orioles jacket, said he has written letters to many elected officials opposing the Bel Air Walmart and said he hoped the county continued the meeting elsewhere and in a larger venue, perhaps in the evening.

"The public has a right to know. This is a public hearing with only a portion of the public here and the public has a right to be here," Glass said. "I believe this process is a violation of the public's right to be present and I believe this is a potential violation of due process rights of the community."

Alex Marconi, a student at Patterson Mill Middle/High School, which is near the Walmart site, said he was representing a group called Students Against Walmart.

Lawyers representing the opponents said the store will have insufficient parking but will not qualify for a parking waiver and customers will park in the Bright Oaks neighborhood.

They also listed numerous Walmart stores around the country that were left "empty and abandoned" only to be replaced by new Super Walmarts "a few miles down the road," drawing gasps from the crowd.

Zoning allows store

County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, through her legislative aide, submitted a letter requesting additional consideration of items such as lighting and the overall site design for the store.

She suggested "numerous conditions" for the project, including eliminating the access road at Bright Oaks Drive, reconfiguring Bel Air South Parkway to create a "safe vehicular and pedestrian linkage," requiring major road and sidewalk improvements at adjacent roads, requiring protection of the view shed by upgrading the building exterior and enhancing the scope of berms, requiring low-impact development that is environmentally sensitive, limiting the impervious surface, requiring security, requiring all lighting to be low-level, requiring all outside storage to be screened and requiring a water feature.

County Council President Billy Boniface called The Aegis late Wednesday to clarify that her position had not been vetted by the council and she was not speaking on behalf of the council.

Meanwhile, Robert Lynch, an attorney representing site owner Haron Dahan, said the project is totally in keeping with the county's master plan going back more than 30 years.

He said his client has owned the property, a former tree farm, for more than 50 years.

"There is no mistake on the zoning of this property," Lynch said, explaining that in the 1990s, the property was eventually approved for more than 500 multi-family dwellings.

"Since 2005, this property has been re-zoned high-density commercial development because it's in the heart of the development envelope and it was decided back in 1977, 35 years ago, that that was the appropriate zoning classification," he said.

Lynch said it was widely known since the comprehensive rezoning meetings in 2005 and 2009 that the property would be Wegmans or something even larger.

"They did it because it's consistent to the master plan," Lynch said about the county's decision to rezone the property to high-intensity B3 commercial.

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