Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's leading retailer, will not be coming to Howard County -- at least not in the near future.
The Howard County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board, last night unanimously denied Wal-Mart's petition to rezone 54 acres in Ellicott City near U.S. 29 and 40 for retail rather than office use.
The only grounds for making zoning changes between comprehensive rezonings of the county, done about every eight years, are a mistake in zoning or a change in the character of the neighborhood.
The board said Wal-Mart offered no evidence of change.
"This change amounts only to a paper change, the kind that was rejected by the Court of Special Appeals," the board said in a 21-page "Decision and Order" members signed last night.
Wal-Mart had argued the board had made a mistake in 1985 by:
* Not foreseeing today's consumer interest in discount retailers, and
* Zoning for more office space than actually was needed.
Relating to shopping trends, the board said it has approved retail zoning in other areas of the county, including the type proposed by Wal-Mart.
"The mere fact that these locations may be undesirable to Wal-Mart is not in and of itself failure to foresee a trend," the board said.
Wal-Mart representatives had told the board they had looked at other sites, but found them unacceptable.
The board also said the lower demand for office space "seems to be more of a temporary reflection of the economy. It cannot be assumed that the current market conditions will continue indefinitely."
Thomas M. Meachum, attorney for neighboring residents, said citizens are "well-served by this decision." Many residents fought the proposal for the Wal-Mart and adjacent Sam's Club, a members-only wholesale buying group.
"The Zoning Board deserves a lot of credit," Mr. Meachum said. "They analyzed the facts [through 10 nights of lengthy hearings] and did not let any presummed economic benefit to the county in these hard economic times dissuade them."
Richard B. Talkin, attorney for Wal-Mart, could not be reached for comment last night.
Wal-Mart, which has 30 days to appeal the decision to Circuit Court, is building a store in Westminster and considering two sites in Anne Arundel County.