For now, decision on Wal-Mart zoning is a secret

July 05, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

The Wal-Mart company doesn't know how the Zoning Board voted June 24 on its petition to allow two warehouse-sized stores in Ellicott City.

Wal-Mart's opponents don't know.

"I don't know either," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

There are at least seven people who do know, but they aren't saying.

And so it has always been with individual rezoning cases -- until now.

On Wednesday, a new state open-meetings law went into effect. The law requires disclosure of the previously secret deliberations of the Zoning Board and the liquor board.

Both panels are made up of the five council members.

Board Chairman C. Vernon Gray said he would "abide by the law," both in opening future work sessions and in keeping the Wal-Mart vote -- if there was a vote -- to himself.

"We've made a decision on it, but I can't tell you what it is," said board member Paul Farragut, who noted that such decisions are not final until written and signed. Disclosing the work session vote could expose the decision to a legal challenge upon appeal, he said.

"We've had at least one situation where somebody voted one way, and when they signed it they voted the opposite way," Mr. Farragut said.

Mr. Gray himself wrote a dissenting opinion on this year's Columbia rezoning package, surprising other members.

And the Wal-Mart decision?

There's still time.

F. Todd Taylor Jr., the senior assistant county solicitor who is writing the decision, said he expects to have it finished this week. But public disclosure will have to wait at least another week for the signatures of vacationing board members.

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.

Wal-Mart argued that the zoning board erred in its 1985 comprehensive rezoning in failing to anticipate a depression in the office market. The land can be rezoned only if an error in the current zoning or a change in the character of the neighborhood is found.

Waiting is not a new concept for Wal-Mart's representatives or their opponents, who have endured 10 nights of testimony during the board's hearing on the petition to rezone 54 office/research acres to general business.

"We're all anxious," said Richard Luebke, a resident of the neighboring Ellicott Meadows town house community and staunch Wal-Mart opponent. "But I guess another month isn't going to hurt anybody. Obviously, if they're going to have any more work sessions, we'd be interested in sitting in on the deliberations."

But Mr. Luebke, a corporate lawyer for Bendix Field Engineering Corp. in Columbia, questioned whether the new law would help or hurt.

"I'm not so sure if the public is going to benefit from the new law or not," he said. "I don't think you'll have the frank discussions that you would behind closed doors."

Mr. Farragut said the first chance to see the board's deliberative process will probably be Wednesday night. He said he expects an immediate decision after a public hearing on a regulation change that would in effect allow a golf training center not far from the Wal-Mart site.

The open work sessions law will get its first major test with deliberations on the proposed Waverly Woods II project, whose opposition is as strong as is Wal-Mart's.

With more public hearing dates scheduled for July 22 and 29, however, and August out of the picture, interested parties may have to wait until September to witness those deliberations.

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