Opponents of a proposed Ellicott City Wal-Mart want the county planning director to tell the Zoning Board in person why he doesn't like the idea, either.
Planning Director Joseph W. Warren Jr. sent the Zoning Board a 25-page technical report recommending against rezoning 54 acres near U.S. 29 and U.S. 40 for retail rather than office use. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wants the property rezoned so it can build a department store and members-only wholesale buying club.
Simply having a report for the record is not enough, said Thomas M. Meachum, an attorney representing residents opposed to the project. He and Vincent M. Guida, a lawyer for the developer of a town housecommunity adjacent to the property, want the zoning board to subpoena Rutter.
"Mr. Rutter has a great deal of zoning expertise," Meachum said. "We want him to testify about his participation in the 1985 comprehensive rezoning and the 1990 General Plan."
The only grounds for a zoning change between comprehensive
rezonings of the county is a mistake in zoning or a change in the character of the neighborhood.
Wal-Mart says the county made a mistake in the 1985 rezoningand sought to correct it in the 1990 General Plan. The 1990 general plan shows the Wal-Mart parcel as a mixed-use center.
Deputy county solicitor Paul Johnson said Friday the Zoning Board, unlike the Board of Appeals, does not have subpoena power. The board could request Rutter to testify but could not compel him to, Johnson said.
Johnson said he would recommend against making such a request.
"If we start calling the director of planning and zoning to testify, it's a whole new process," Johnson said. "The planning staff would spend 25 to 30 percent of its time testifying in zoning cases. The whole process would become politicized."
"I agree with Paul 100 percent," saidZoning Board Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd. He said this was the first time the board had been asked to issue a subpoena.
"I assume Mr. Johnson is correct about the subpoena," Meachum said, "but I don'tsee any basis for his concern about a politicized process. Having the director testify is rare -- if indeed it has ever happened."
Meachum and Guida spent most of Thursday night sharing a four-hour cross-examination of Val Lazdins, a local land planner responsible for Wal-Mart's site development plan. The testimony on which Lazdins was cross-examined was given to the Zoning Board Feb. 12.
During his cross-examination, Guida zeroed in on site selection and a nine-acre portion of the Wal-Mart parcel. Why were those acres included, he wanted to know.
Site development plan requirements for parcels under 50 acres are more stringent than requirements for parcels over 50 acres. If nine acres were dropped from Wal-Mart's petition, the parcel wouldbe less than 50 acres.
Lazdins said an office building on the nine-acre portion is only 40 percent rented. Part of the reason it has such a low occupancy, he said, is that the zoning board made a zoning mistake.
Following the cross-examination, Wal-Mart attorney Richard L. Talkin asked Lazdins if Wal-Mart would be willing to do a site plan for 45 to 50 acres if the board asked it. Lazdins said the company would be willing.
The next hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. March9, when the company's traffic expert will testify.
Opponents, most of whom showed up Thursday wearing orange badges that said "Say No," have yet to appear before the board.
Hearings may have to be scheduled on a Saturday and Sunday if they cannot be concluded March 9, Gray said.