With Wal-Mart knocking, Kent tries to narrow door

February 22, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CHESTERTOWN -- Inside a steamy self-service laundry, Kathleen Brown folded clothes and mused about what it would be like if a huge, 98,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store were built outside town on the site of the old Scheeler airfield.

She didn't know it, but a couple of hours earlier the advance team for the retail giant had been kicked in the teeth. The Kent County Planning Commission gave preliminary approval to a change in the comprehensive zoning plan that would limit a Wal-Mart or any other proposed store to 50,000 square feet of floor space.

The commission's action Thursday was cheered by about 100 spectators, who were counting on the reduction in commercial floor space to send a message to boosters of so-called megastores that they should look somewhere other than this Eastern Shore community to do business.

As she smoothed out her laundry, Ms. Brown reflected on what a Wal-Mart might mean to this rural county of fewer than 18,000 residents.

"It would be good for those who don't have any way to travel to Dover," she said, referring to the nearby Delaware city where the absence of a sales tax lures many shoppers from neighboring Maryland counties.

"It would be the biggest store here. It would mean more things to pick from," she added. "I'd like to have one here."

Some others here share Ms. Brown's sentiments. The Ames store is closing. The Sears catalog shop is about to go dark. The downtown five-and-dime burned last year and was bulldozed. A Wal-Mart, they say, could offer as many as 200 jobs and some of the cheapest prices ever to hit Kent County.

But their voices have been reduced to whispers in a nearly religious, up-against-the-Wal-Mart battle by a well-organized and growing group of residents determined not to lose control of their community to outside developers.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the discount retailer based in Bentonville, Ark., has more than 1,800 stores in the United States and projects its growth at 150 stores a year.

It is uncertain whether last week's zoning setback for Wal-Mart was a fatal blow to its plans for Kent County. The county commissioners will have a public hearing Thursday before deciding on March 2 whether to approve the floor space restrictions. If the zoning amendment is accepted, the Wal-Mart developers are expected to ask that their plan be grandfathered as an exception to the new regulations.

And if they can't build in Kent County, Nishan Topjian, project manager for the Greenbelt-based Colton and Laskin development firm, said they will go across the Chester River a few miles into Queen Anne's County -- seen as more receptive to commercial development -- and build the Wal-Mart there.

"We'll take a look at what's good for the county," said Larry B. Beck, commission president, who acknowledged that the controversy has generated much political and economic pressure on the decision makers.

If Wal-Mart comes to Kent, the discount store could have the effect of knocking out small businesses throughout the area but would add substantially to the county tax base. If it goes to Queen Anne's, Wal-Mart could have the same negative effect on other businesses, but Kent would not get the added tax revenues.

"I've heard from both sides," said Mr. Beck. "I've even heard from a third side, the ones who say they don't care. We're just trying to keep the county on track of what we think it should be for the future."

Not since a grassroots organization trashed a plan to build a huge refuse incinerator near here several years ago has the local public been so outraged at what it sees as a menace to its tranquillity.

In fact, the Wal-Mart debate itself has disturbed the peace. Public hearings have pitted friend against friend. Targets of street gossip have talked with their lawyers about filing libel suits. And the mayor of Chestertown, who has been linked to one of the potential Wal-Mart developers, has received threats against his life.

"I have never, ever experienced anything like this," said Mayor Elmer E. Horsey, who one day discovered that the lug nuts had been removed from a wheel on his Corvette.

"I've had shots shot outside my house at night, death threats over the telephone," he said. "It really has awakened me to today's politics."

Mr. Horsey said his lawyer has advised him to withhold comment on the Wal-Mart proposal. He has been forced to excuse himself from voting on any town issue associated with the building proposal -- from a land annexation request to a resolution

opposing the Wal-Mart -- because his friend Louis Grasmick may join the developers if the Wal-Mart proposal moves ahead. Besides being a close friend, Mr. Horsey borrowed $500,000 from Mr. Grasmick last year for personal business.

The nasty underside of the Wal-Mart fray is unfortunate an misrepresents the policies of those who want to control growth in Kent County, said Philip W. Hoon, a lawyer for the Coalition for the Preservation of Chestertown.

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