A Wal-Mart planner last week told the county Zoning Board that a natural buffer between Ellicott City homes and its two proposed stores would be increased to football-field size.
Valdis Lazdins of LDR International Inc. testified Wednesday in the fifth night of hearings on a Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s petition to rezone 54 acres at U.S. 40 andU.S. 29 from office/research to retail use. The retailer wants to build a 132,500 square-foot Sam's Club wholesale buying club and a 119,500 Wal-Mart department store on opposite sides of North Ridge Road.
The buffer was widened from 30 feet to 180 feet where homes are nearest the Sam's Club site. The buffer would feature an earthen berm with trees that, when fully grown, would be tall enough to block the 26-foot-high store from the view of Ellicott Meadows town house residents. Lazdins said that the club's 960-space parking lot was shifted southward to leave a landscaped area as large as a football field.
The County Council, which sits as the Zoning Board, requires either a mistake in the original zoning or a change in the neighborhood's character to grant the rezoning. Under the site-plan rezoning process Wal-Mart chose, the council also considers the appropriateness of specific plans.
If the the rezoning is granted, Wal-Mart will have to adhere to the site plan as accepted by the board.
At the first hearing Feb. 12, Wal-Mart promised road improvement aid in an attempt toanswer county planners' criticism.
Lazdins said the newest revisions called for a fence around the Sam's Club parking lot to prevent trespassing into the town house project. Residents fear the stores will bring crime to the area, trash, light pollution, as well as noise from round-the-clock deliveries.
The only resident to testify in favor of the petition was former county Chamber of Commerce President Richard Pettingill, who urged the county Zoning Board to "rise above the crowd noise" and approve the project.
Pettingill said the county needed the more than 400 jobs the two stores would bring, even if they were entry-level jobs paying $11,000 a year. Pettingill, who was speaking as a county resident and not for the chamber, is a partner in a commercial real estate firm.
He said the commercial share of the county's revenue base has dropped from the optimal level of 25 percent to 30 to about 22 percent. If the county rejects a large business like Wal-Mart, the county's homeowners will have to pick up an increasingly larger share of local government costs and the county's bondrating may suffer.
He also criticized the property's current "planned office/research" zoning as a failed experiment.
The first opponent to testify was Joyce Ardo, who spoke for the 630 households of the North St. John's Lane Community Association.
"We need jobs. Not $11,000-a-year jobs, but jobs that support families," she said, arguing that office/research development would bring higher-paying jobs.
She said the project would also have disastrous effects on traffic. She pointed out that Wal-Mart chose the site in part because it isvisible from U.S. 29 -- which means it would also be visible from her neighborhood.
"I shouldn't have a turnpike environment imposed on my daily life," she said.
About 80 opponents signed up to testify at the hearing. It is set to continue Wednesday, and another night will be scheduled.