The Wal-Mart discount chain's plan to build a store in Ellicott Citywas dealt a setback last week when the county planning board unanimously voted against the proposal.
Although the vote does not kill Wal-Mart's plan, it sends the zoning board a strong message to reject it.
Kristin Stehben, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, said the company had no comment on thedecision other than that it still intends to build a store in Ellicott City.
Stehben would not say whether the company had identified alternative sites.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, is in the midst of a five-store thrust into Maryland that includes plans for a 119,500-square-foot Wal-Mart discount department store and a 132,500 Sam's Club wholesale warehouse across an extension ofNorth Ridge Road near U.S. 40.
But planners said Wal-Mart did notsufficiently justify the need for changing the 54 acres from office/research to commercial zoning. The matter is unscheduled to go beforethe county zoning board.
The two stores are planned to open in spring 1993.
Wal-Mart last week claimed the zoning change is appropriate because the character of the neighborhood changed when other retail operations opened nearby. Wal-Mart also argued that the current office zoning was a mistake, because the county failed to anticipate adownturn in the office market.
But the planning board rejected both arguments. A planning staff report noted that although other retail operations have been built on rezoned residential land along U.S. 40, all are on the opposite side of U.S. 29 and 40.
The board also felt the stores would be an inappropriate use for the land even if there were a legal reason for a zoning change. Board vice chairwoman Kay Partridge said after the vote that the traffic it would generate was the board's main concern.
Residents testified against the storesbecause of the noise, crime, trash and glaring lights they expected would come with them.
"We would look out our window and see the Sam's warehouse maybe 50 feet behind us," said Leonard Sitnick, who haslived in one of 48 Ellicott Meadows town houses for about a year.
Six Ellicott Meadows residents and a representative of the town house developer, Wilder Building Corp., testified against the rezoning.
"Behind our house is a large field where there are deer, foxes and even a horse that our neighbors have affectionately called Gomer," said Sitnick.
Residents also worry about noise from round-the-clock merchandise deliveries, trash blowing from parking lots, lights shining into their bedrooms and even theft of their property and abductionof their children because of the large number of people that would be attracted to the store from Howard, Carroll and Baltimore counties.
Residents from the northern St. John's Lane neighborhood testified that the store would be an eyesore visible across U.S. 29 and wouldincrease traffic congestion in their neighborhoods as well.
Richard B. Talkin, the Columbia attorney who represents Wal-Mart, said he will continue to pursue the case before the zoning board. He declinedto comment on Wal-Mart's plans if the zoning board also rejects the rezoning petition.
"We really think it's a terrific site. We really think it's a big benefit for the county," Talkin said.
Joseph W.Rutter Jr., county planning and zoning director, said he agrees thatWal-Mart is a good operation, but county planners feel the company picked the wrong site.
County planners had asked Wal-Mart if it waswilling to help pay for road improvements to improve traffic flow inand out of North Ridge Road. But Wal-Mart representatives insisted that such responsibilities fall to the county and state, Rutter said.
Wal-Mart has 1,638 stores in 37 states and is expanding at a rate of about 150 new stores a year. Now concentrated in the southern and Midwestern states, the chain, which overtook K-mart and Sears in lastyear's sales, is expanding into the northwestern states.