Under the bleary-eyed gaze of nine county residents at 3:42 a.m. Friday, the county Zoning Board heard the last word on Wal-Mart's plans for two warehouse-sized stores in Ellicott City.
It was the 10th night of testimony in one of the longest county zoning hearings since 1976, when the Rouse Co. won the annexation of hundreds of acres into Columbia.
"I was punch-drunk at the end of that. I think that for the last half an hour of that I was numb," said Verlene Frye, a River Mills Estates resident. Frye fought sleep until nearly 4 a.m. to hear the last-minute legal details worked out between two opposition lawyers, Wal-Mart's lawyer and four board members.
Frye was among the 80 to 140 residents of the U.S. 40 corridor who sported orange "NO" stickers at the hearings.
They oppose the petition by the nation's largest retailer to rezone 54 acres of planned office/research (POR) land to a commercial zone allowing large-scale retail operations.
The company plans to build a 119,500-square-foot Wal-Mart department store and a 132,500-square-foot Sam's Club wholesale store at U.S. 29 and 40 and North Ridge Road.
But the exhaustive series of meetings may lead to some other adjustments. "Obviously, it's going to lead to some rule changes at some point," said C. Vernon Gray, the board's chairman, as he closed the hearing. He said Friday afternoon he would like time limits on presentation in site-plan rezoning cases, a no-holds-barred zoning option designed to give the county more control over development.
"We started on this case on Jan. 8. Now it's May 15. That's why I think we need to take a look at this," Gray said.
The County Council, sitting as the zoning board, must now schedule a work session to deliberate on 114 exhibits and the testimony of about 40 witnesses. Some of Wal-Mart's expert witnesses spent entire nights being grilled by opposition attorneys Vincent M. Guida and Thomas M. Meachum.
Gray said he would like the board to reach a decision on Wal-Mart and comprehensive rezoning of the western county by July 1. From that date, board work sessions will be open to the public under a new state open meetings law.
In his summation, Wal-Mart attorney Richard Talkin said the board erred in its 1985 comprehensive rezoning in failing to anticipate a depression in the office market. That is a key point since the land can be rezoned only if an error in the current zoning or a change in the character of the neighborhood is found.
"There is a plethora of change in this case," Talkin said, outlining physical, usage, and trend changes.
On the appropriateness of the project, he said, no one has argued that U.S. 40 is not a retail corridor.
He also stressed that Wal-Mart would have a legal obligation to live up to changes made in its site plan, including adding a planted berm to shield residents from the project and making improvements to the congested North Ridge Road/U.S. 40 intersection.
"That's what site-plan zoning is all about," he said. "It offers the capability to limit the use of the site."
Guida, who represents Joseph Wilder, developer of neighboring Ellicott Mills town houses, and Meachum, who represents opposing residents, took turns summing up their case.
Guida reminded board members that county planning professionals and the county Planning Board both rejected Wal-Mart's petition. Those rejections were based in part on fears about traffic safety and the 1990 General Plan's prohibition of large retail operations for that area.
Meachum cited several court rulings to support that a mistake in zoning or a change in the neighborhood must relate to the specific site, rather than the sweeping considerations suggested by Wal-Mart.
Even if the board found a mistake or change, it should still reject Wal-Mart's site plan, he argued.
"It's not fair to the residents that are there to make a drastic change like that," Meachum said. "It's gonna be Ritchie Highway, no question about it," he added, referring to Anne Arundel County's traffic-choked commercial strip.
"If you look at the site plan, you'll say what the residents say; you'll say, 'No.' "
Earlier, Guida and Meachum presented a real estate appraiser to close their case against Wal-Mart.
Jeanne Chandler, president of Benchmark Appraisal Group Inc. of Columbia, testified that the property values of the neighboring Ellicott Meadows town houses would drop much more if the two stores were built than if the site was developed under the office/research zoning.
"In my opinion, the highest and best use of this site would be one which would be allowed under the POR zoning," she said. That would include office buildings, schools, libraries, day-care centers, convents and banks, she testified.
Chandler testified that even if the property were developed to its potential of 800,000 square feet of office space, it would be quiet on evenings and weekends, when most residents are home.
In addition, the stores would turn North Ridge Road into a major access road connecting Town & Country Boulevard to U.S. 40, she said. In the evenings, when office traffic subsided, "traffic would be just hitting stride for a retail center."
If the rezoning is not granted, she said, Wal-Mart could still build on prime locations at Interstate 70 and Route 32 in West Friendship, the former site of the General Electric Appliance Park East in Columbia and near Route 175 and U.S. 1 in Jessup. Those sites are removed from residential neighborhoods.