As Walmart moves forward with reinvigorated plans for a Bel Air store, residents of Bel Air South have ramped up efforts to follow the big-box project's progress through Harford County's development process.
Steve Tobia, of the Bel Air South Community Foundation, took residents through a detailed overview of the numerous traffic improvements being required for a store to be built at Plumtree Road and Route 924, as well as several proposed by the Foundation's own traffic engineer.
The meeting, held at the MacFaul Activities Center on Sunday afternoon, drew more than 85 people. Many had mixed views on what should be done regarding Walmart but all seemed worried about traffic, regardless of whether the store even gets built.
Tobia told the group he still hopes to see Walmart expand its Constant Friendship store rather than build a new one on Route 924 that will severely affect the area.
"Our Bel Air community will be thrown out of balance, our lifestyle will change, we will see a lot more traffic in the area, a lot of different things will change," he told the audience. "First off, we'll see heavy construction come in if the proposal goes through, and then we'll see our roads torn up, and when all of that's complete, we'll see 10,000 more cars to the Bel Air South area. That's concerning, I think, for everybody."
"The sad thing is, it doesn't have to be. Walmart can expand their Constant Friendship store. [Resident] Bill Wehland has the site plans, drawings, from Walmart showing there is a 30,000-square-foot expansion that could be put on the back and that is about what their food section is," he said, noting he realizes the company would prefer to build a completely new store.
"When you look at the entire picture of the community and Walmart, the best solution is for them to stay where they are at Constant Friendship, but it doesn't seem to be a team effort in that regard," he said.
Despite the plethora of "No Bel Air Walmart" bumper stickers and an "Expand Constant Friendship Walmart" sign in the room, Tobia and several others said after the meeting they are not against Walmart but are just concerned about traffic and threats to public safety from a big-box development.
Howard Klein, whose family owns Klein's ShopRite across Bel Air South Parkway from the proposed Walmart, was among those who contributed to Sunday's meeting.
"Walmart has 11,000 stores in 27 countries. We have six stores in the county," he said afterward. The Klein family also has two stores in Baltimore County and one in Baltimore City.
"We are just hoping that at the end of this process, that our customers can get to our three stores on 924," Klein said, referring to supermarkets at Festival at Bel Air, Main Street and Forest Hill. "We are worried that this is a huge poison pill for the county, that it will make it impossible for consumers to move anywhere along the corridor."
While it would be just "a small mistake" for Walmart, Klein said, "this could be disaster for us if it doesn't work."
Tobia showed the traffic improvements Harford County and Maryland State Highway Administration expect Walmart, and occasionally MedStar or Boulevard at Box Hill, to make at nearby intersections.
They include improvements to the Bright Oaks Drive entrance at Route 924 and, perhaps most prominently, another through lane for northbound traffic on Route 924 up to Patterson Mill Road.
Improvements also mean adding left-turn lanes for traffic headed from Wheel Road north on Route 24, from Plumtree Road headed south to Route 24 and from Bel Air South Parkway for traffic headed south to Route 24.
Boulevard at Box Hill, for example, must add a "tapered" extension to the right-turn lane for eastbound traffic on Singer Road toward Route 924.
Tobia noted residents were previously told MedStar, which is building a clinic next to Walgreens on Route 924's east side, would help pay for improvements at Route 24 and Wheel Road but they are unsure if that is still the case.
Joe Mehra, a traffic engineer with MCV Associates who is working with the residents' group, is also recommending tapered extensions to turn lanes on both sides of Plumtree, as well as Route 924 for northbound traffic before Wheel Road and on Wheel Road for westbound traffic turning left toward Route 924.
Ted Janes, who lives in the Glenwood area off Patterson Mill and helped run Tobia's presentation, agreed: "It's not about Walmart. It's about the safety."
"I drove school buses up and down for five years on 924 and served the Box Hill communities. I probably know the traffic situation there as well as anybody, and it's going to be a huge issue," Janes said.
Residents were worried about traffic accumulation from all the projects in the pipeline for the area, including Evergreen Woods Apartments, MedStar and housing developments like Magness Farms.
Tobia did say working with Harford County Executive Barry Glassman's new administration has been great, and spokesperson Cindy Mumby spearheaded a meeting between residents and new planning and zoning director Bradley Killian.
"The folks at [planning and zoning] have been looking at this extremely diligently. In fact, they have been doing their jobs, they have been looking at it close, they don't want to see a third lane at taxpayers' expense," he said about the idea of a third through lane ultimately needing to be added to Route 24.
"At this point, it doesn't appear a third lane is necessary," he added.
Tobia suggested the only way Walmart could potentially be stopped is if the traffic improvements prove too expensive.
"Walmart has a right, because of the zoning of the property, to at least try to build something there, so the only way we see of stopping it at this point is if all the traffic requirements cost them enough money that there is a tipping point," Tobia told his audience.
Residents like Wehland said they want zoning regarding big-box stores in the area to change, on a legislative level, but many residents were not confident about Tobia's suggestion that the store could be priced out of the Bel Air area.
The proposed improvements will also not necessarily be a cure-all for the area's traffic woes, Jordan Greene, of Hunters Run, said after the meeting.
"I am not sure that that is going to help," Greene said about what the county and state are requiring.
Janes added: "I don't think it can be stopped. I think [the traffic improvements] is chump change for Walmart. I think they have deep pockets."
Tobia said the Foundation's next step depends on whether Walmart moves forward with a new traffic study, which it was required to do by the county after State Highway Administration suddenly granted it partial access to Route 924 in January.
He also said the group could hold some more rallies, as residents did along Route 924 several years ago.