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Walmart 'no longer pursuing' Bel Air store, company says

Retailer "unable to reach agreement" on contract extension to purchase property

Walmart officials have confirmed they are no longer pursuing the controversial new store at Bel Air's Route 924 and Plumtree Road, a plan that had sparked widespread community opposition.

"We were unable to reach agreement on an additional extension of the contract to purchase the site located at the intersection of Route 924 and Plumtree and are no longer pursuing a relocation to that property," Walmart spokesperson Lorenzo Lopez said in a statement Tuesday morning.

"We greatly value our relationship with Harford County, and remain committed to serving the many Harford County residents who shop in our stores and benefit from access to quality goods at affordable prices," Lopez said. "We would also like to thank the many Harford County residents who have supported Walmart's efforts."

Harford County Council President Dick Slutzky said Monday night "an unofficial contact" informed him that "at this time they [Walmart] will not be moving ahead" with the planned 186,000-square-foot store.

Slutzky said Walmart "had a timeline they had to deal with their financial people; they were dealing with the owners of the property and ran out of time."

Abandonment of the project would bring to an end more than four years of contention between the giant retailer and many people living in the residential communities near the 35-acre site where the store has been planned.

Harford County spokesperson Cindy Mumby said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman's administration had "some indications" earlier the company would not move forward with the store.

"We recognize that this was a controversial project, but in any development process, the Glassman administration works to treat all sides fairly by applying standards equally among businesses without compromising our standards for traffic mitigation and the safety of our citizens," Mumby said Tuesday.

The Walmart site, which is zoned for intense commercial development and is owned by a charitable foundation, is in the midst of a heavy commercial strip that runs along Route 24, the main artery linking Bel Air with I-95.

But, it's also Harford County most heavily developed and populated residential corridor, as well, and hundreds of those residents packed community meetings and county review sessions starting in mid-2012 when the scope of the project first crystallized in the public eye.

Opponents complained the proposed Walmart would exacerbate traffic congestion along Route 924, which parallels Route 24 and serves many residential communities and commercial centers, and various feeder roads.

They, along with several county elected officials, appealed to Walmart to renovate and expand its 23-year-old Constant Friendship store, less than three miles south of the Plumtree site, rather than build the new store. Walmart representatives countered that such a plan would not be economically feasible.

Bill Wehland, a Bel Air South resident and one of the opposition leaders, was among residents leading the opposition to the new store..

"I wish to thank all the citizens who participated in opposing Walmart's proposal to build a supercenter at this site ever since it was presented to the public in July 2012 at a community input meeting," he said in an emailed statement. "It was apparent from the beginning that a store of this size at this location would adversely affect the safety, general welfare and quality of life of people living in the neighborhood. It would also result in dangerous traffic conditions and jeopardize the lives and property of people living in the neighborhood."

"Although Walmart had the right to propose this store at this site under existing rules and regulations I believe they may have finally come to the realization that the traffic mitigation proposed to and from this site would not meet the requirements of Harford County and the State Highway Administration," he continued. "This, coupled with the perseverance and dedication of those who fought against Walmart building at this site was commendable. It does prove that citizens can make an impact in their community despite the odds."

The battle appeared to have reached a stalemate of sorts this past winter, after Walmart balked at producing a new traffic study in the wake of receiving an approval from the State Highway Administration for access to and from Route 924, which the agency had previously denied.

Glassman's administration said the new study was necessary and without it, review and approval of the store site plan could not be completed.

Walmart representatives, meanwhile, also publicly criticized the estimated $6 million worth of intersection and other traffic mitigation improvements the county was requiring for the project, calling them inequitable and "unfair treatment."

They said they were prepared to spend $4 million for such improvements, even though developers of two nearby properties, one a multi-story medical arts building and the other a 200-unit garden apartment complex, were paying much less in proportion to their projected traffic impacts.

Slutzky said he has no idea what may happen with the property, which could still be developed for a myriad of commercial uses, according to its B3 zoning.

Robert Lynch, a Bel Air lawyer who represents the site's owner, the Haran Dahan Foundation of Baltimore, said the foundation's trustees "elected to terminate the contract" with Walmart.

While Lynch declined to say what prompted his client's action, he said the property is likely to remain on the market.

"It's still there; it's still zoned B3; it's still one of the most desirable properties in the development corridor," he said. "I'm sure it will be marketed accordingly."

Wehland said residents will still need to press for changes in county development regulations, a point they raised repeatedly during the controversy and considered but was later rejected by the County Council out of fear any such changes could result in costly litigation while the Walmart project was still pending.

"Although this is great news we still need to get the present county administration and council to adopt amendments to the development regulations that gives the County Council control of large structures," he said. "Such structures need to come under special developments or special exceptions requiring Board of Appeals (County Council) approval. The zoning classification also needs to be changed for this site. The time to do this is now to prevent other large structures from being built there."

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