Wal-mart Site Out Of Place, Developer Says

Big Store Doesn't Belong Near Homes, Wilder Argues

April 05, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

He drove hundreds of miles and took hundreds of pictures to help make one point: Wal-Mart does not belong next to his homes.

Ellicott City developer Joseph Wilder testified before the county Zoning Boardfor 2 1/2 hours last week, questioning the wisdom of building two stores next to the Ellicott Meadows town houses he is building.

Pointing to snapshots pasted to cardboard displays, Wilder said he visited Wal-Marts and Sam's Clubs in six towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

"I have not found any people living around these humongous buildings," he said. The closest housing he said he noticed was one or two miles away. The stores were built instead next to other retail stores, industrial areas, and in York, Pa., near a helicopter pad.

Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, began its thrust into Maryland last year with stores in Prince Frederick, Easton and Hagerstown. A Waldorf store opened Wednesday, to be followed by an Annapolis Sam's Club this summer and an Elkton Wal-Mart in spring 1993. Laurel and Westminster stores are also being planned.

After hearing testimony Wednesday and Thursday, Zoning Board members hope to finish the hearing Tuesday. Board Chairman C. Vernon Gray announced that the eighth and last night of hearing would begin with residents' testimony at 8:30 p.m. in the Banneker Room of the George Howard county office building.

County Council members, who sit as the Zoning Board, say the hearing on the retailer's petition to rezone 54 office/research acres for retail use is the longest in memory.

Board members said that because of conflicting testimony from Wilder's and Wal-Mart's traffic experts, they wanted to hear from the county's traffic experts. County planners rejected Wal-Mart's traffic study as flawed, partly because it lacked an accident analysis and information on Saturday traffic.

On Wednesday, Wilder showed photographs of 6-foot pine treesnear the Waldorf store and ridiculed the retailer's promised landscaped buffer. Its earthen berm and pine trees, growing about a foot a year, are supposed to hide the stores near U.S. 40 and 29 from the view of the 108-home community.

"It will take 30 years to shade thosebuildings," he said. Wilder said he counted cinder blocks in the Hagerstown Sam's Club wall in Hagerstown to calculate that it was 34 feet high -- eight feet higher than Wal-Mart said the Ellicott City store would be.

Wilder also attacked Wal-Mart's assertion that the combination of a 119,500-square-foot Wal-Mart department store and a 132,500-square-foot Sam's Club membership buying club would not be a regional shopping center.

Opposition traffic expert Herbert Plitt, president of Phoenix Engineering Inc., said any store that generated 23,000 trips on a Saturday and 13,000 trips on a weekday would have to draw from outside the county. A study commissioned by Wal-Mart showedless than half as many Saturday trips.

Plitt questioned the validity of Wal-Mart's traffic study, mainly because it studied only morning and afternoon rush-hour traffic. He said U.S. 40 has high traffic level throughout workdays and Saturdays, when Wal-Mart's own experts said it would draw more customers.

Plitt also said 1990 state study showed the U.S. 40 intersections of Ridge Road, Rogers Avenue and Normandy Shopping Center have three times the state's average accidentrate.

Increased traffic would make that worse, he said.

On Thursday night, several local residents opposed to the rezoning testified, including Alan Ugol of Oakwest Drive, who said the Pace membershipwarehouse in Woodlawn, which would compete with Sam's Club, draws from 14 to 17 tractor-trailer rigs daily.

Cynthia Wagner of St. John's Lane said she feared the stores would kill off local businesses bytaking customers from them. She said the owner of a small store nearthe Easton Wal-Mart can no longer carry a line of cosmetics because the department store has obtained exclusive rights to sell it.

Richard Luebke of Ellicott Meadows said he could not understand how the Zoning Board could approve the rezoning after it had been rejected byboth the county Planning Board and the Department of Planning and Zoning.

"We have heard ad nauseam how Wal-Mart is the No. 1 retailerin the country. Does this mean that Wal-Mart should be able to dictate to Howard County what its zoning policy should be?"

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