Board gives OK to store Wal-Mart wins partial rezoning

September 16, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

When Ellicott Meadows residents picked up their newspapers last Thursday, many got a painful lesson in the way the county's land use is determined.

Fourteen months earlier, the growing community of about 60 townhouses was celebrating its victory over the nation's most successful and powerful retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The company wanted to convert 54 acres of office/research-zoned land to general business zoning, which would allow it to build two warehouse-sized stores, a Wal-Mart and a members-only Sam's Club.

"I figured everything was dead in the water," said Len Sitnick, whose house backs up to the proposed store site, which is owned by developer Nicholas Mangione.

Last Thursday, Mr. Sitnick knew that Wal-Mart's rezoning petition had been unanimously rejected by the County Council members, sitting as the Zoning Board, in July 1992 after 10 nights of hearings. He also knew that Wal-Mart had lost its Circuit Court appeal of the board's decision.

So, like many other residents of the community, he was #i surprised to read that Wal-Mart had won a unanimous vote Sept. 8 for 18 acres of general business zoning -- enough for a planned Sam's Club -- on part of the parcel it sought to rezone.

The proposal for one store was among dozens made during the comprehensive rezoning process, during which the board looks at the entire county's zoning and decides changes as a matter policy. During the seven or so years between comprehensive rezonings, individual -- or piecemeal -- rezonings such as Wal-Mart's unsuccessful attempt are made as a matter of law.

Members of the community, who saw directors of their homeowners association testify against the first attempt, were shocked to hear that Wal-Mart had won the second time after directors' homes had been put up for sale.

Last night, Mr. Sitnick was to have held a meeting to give the directors a chance to explain. He said he called it off after he was satisfied that residents' suspicions were unfounded.

"Rumors were flying," Mr. Sitnick said.

Chief among the rumors was that the three resident directors had held back information in an effort to sell their houses before other residents.

"In reality, none of them could have possibly known anything," Mr. Sitnick said, because of the Zoning Board's deliberations are so difficult to follow and communicating with members is prohibited by the board's rules.

In fact, director Richard Luebke attended comprehensive rezoning hearings in March and testified against the proposal a second time.

Therefore, they had no way of knowing, Mr. Sitnick said, as did their councilman, Darrel Drown, R-2nd, that approval for Wal-Mart was likely. They also did not know that Mr. Drown was to propose creating a buffer area of townhouse zoning between the store site and the community.

Other board members favored apartment zoning for the buffer, and Mr. Drown went along with them.

Mr. Sitnick said one of the troubling aspects of the apartment zoning is that the county's adequate public facilities laws would hold up its development for four years. He said that could provide the legal basis for making changes between comprehensive rezonings -- proof of a mistake or substantial change to the character of the neighborhood.

"If you want to prove change or mistake, there it is, right there," he said.

That would continue a cycle of rezoning that has helped make Mr. Luebke pessimistic about battles between developers and ordinary citizens.

"The way it works in Howard County is that these developers, they're like the Eveready Bunny, they keep coming back, and keep coming back until they get what they want."

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