Harford's gateway

December 21, 1992

Approaching Baltimore from the south, travelers come upon the Oz-like vision of the gleaming new ballyard. Visitors to Howard County's Columbia or Baltimore County's town center at Owings Mills are met by creative corporate structures. And the first impression Harford County will offer people in several months will be. . . a Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is a fine place to shop. It's being built where the zoning allows for it and where the landholder has every right to put it. But it does make us wonder whether residents knew what they were doing a couple of years ago when they voted by a 3-2 margin to reject re-zoning of the Wal-Mart tract at Interstate 95 and Route 24.

At the time, growth was a particularly dirty word in Harford. Political positions on growth built and broke many a career in the county. Residents recoiled after seeing roads, homes and shopping centers pave over great expanses of forest and farmland.

Despite the foresight that county officials showed in mapping out a "development envelope," voters cried out that they were sick of all the building. By referendum, they rejected a request to re-zone 200 acres at the county's gateway interchange off I-95 for a complex that was to include a regional shopping mall, hotels and restaurants. (The "Windsor Mall" mega-project wasn't helped by the fact that the developer seemed on shaky financial footing and later changed the mall plans to an off-price center, similar perhaps to the factory outlets up the interstate in Perryville.)

Many voters shot down the comprehensive project, thinking perhaps that such a vote ensured that the commercial property would remain untouched.

Weeks ago, however, the land was stripped for the coming Wal-Mart, which didn't require a zoning exception. We wonder whether residents have any second thoughts as to what they chased away.

Wal-Mart, which is also in the process of building a store in Aberdeen, will likely do swimmingly at the Abingdon site off I-95. The current property owner assures that the landscaping plan for the store will be extensive. And admittedly, it's impossible to quantify how a more impressive entrance would attract additional business or make people feel prouder about the place they live.

Nevertheless, if county leaders had visions of setting a grander tone for the growing county's gateway, it disappeared two years ago when residents were misled into thinking a woodland sentry would guard Harford forever.

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