Neighbors are trying to keep Wal-Mart out

April 22, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

Wal-Mart wants to put its big retailing foot down on 16 acres of woodland on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills, but prospective neighbors say it's too close for safety and comfort.

The country's largest retailer, with sales of $55.5 billion last year, is planning a 149,000-square-foot store at Reisterstown Road and the proposed Dolfield Boulevard in the Owings Mills corridor.

It would be the 15th Wal-Mart in operation or under construction in Maryland, including stores in Glen Burnie, Severna Park, Westminster and Laurel. The chain is also considering a site in Eldersburg in Carroll County. Nationwide, the chain has more than 1,800 stores.

"We don't object to Wal-Mart, we just don't want it here," says Barbara Haskell of the Pleasant Hills Homeowners Association.

Mrs. Haskell owns one of 287 townhouses built since 1989 in Pleasant Hills, which is next to the Wal-Mart site.

"We knew the property was zoned for commercial use, but we expected to get a nice office building," she says. "Our major concern is the traffic problems the store will create seven days a week, and those 18-wheelers that will be delivering merchandise all hours of the day and night."

The store would have more than 700 parking spaces.

"We have a terrible traffic problem on Reisterstown Road as it is," Mrs. Haskell says. "Also, the store would be built within 150 feet or so of some of the homes in our development. I don't think anyone would want that."

Because Reisterstown Road is maintained by the state, the State Highway Administration will have to approve traffic plans and issue an access permit. SHA spokesman Bob Small said the agency has reviewed the Wal-Mart traffic proposal, but won't make a decision until the overall plan is officially submitted.

"We have some concerns," he said, "but it looks like it [the Wal-Mart traffic plan] would work."

Wal-Mart has not yet presented its development plan to Baltimore County, and there's no specific timetable for it, said Wal-Mart spokesman Frank Howard.

"We want to meet with the homeowners in the area again and see if we can accommodate their concerns," he said.

Mrs. Haskell and other members of the association say they're not interested in accommodation. Their slogan is "Go Away Wal-Mart," and they have hired a lawyer and a traffic expert to help make it so.

Wal-Mart, which started with one store in Rogers, Ark., in 1962, originally concentrated on building in small and mid-size towns, but is now expanding into metropolitan areas.

It became a Wall Street hero in the 1980s with its rapid earnings growth: a $10,000 investment in Wal-Mart stock in 1980 would be worth about $1.2 million today. But along the way, the company became a villain to small shopkeepers and labor unions.

Wherever a Wal-Mart appeared, local store owners saw their customers drawn away by the giant retailer's low prices and heavy inventories, according to its critics. Many went out of business. Union leaders say nonunion Wal-Mart pays low wages and depends heavily on part-time help that receives no benefits.

"Wal-Mart puts people out of jobs and drives out small businesses, which costs our union members their jobs," says Joseph Stansbury, Wal-Mart coordinator for Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Local 27 represents 25,000 workers in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia. Its members mainly handle food and stock shelves in groceries and supermarkets.

The union has volunteered to help the homeowners' association by distributing leaflets and fliers and putting up signs.

"We'll assist in any way we can," Mr. Stansbury said. "Wal-Mart devastates the immediate area."

Sandra Smith, executive director of the Owings Mills-Reisterstown Chamber of Commerce, said none of the chamber's members have yet complained about the proposed Wal-Mart store. "We checked with Carroll County, which has the Westminster store, and the chamber there said there have been no negatives so far," she said.

"We'll work with our membership and focus on service if Wal-Mart comes," she said. "Small businesses can give service that larger operations can't."

The property on Reisterstown Road was rezoned for major business in 1988, a classification appropriate for a Wal-Mart store. The site is in the Owings Mills corridor, one of two areas (the other is White Marsh) that the county's master plan has targeted for residential and commercial development.

"We asked the county to suggest an alternative site for the

Wal-Mart, where it wouldn't bother anyone," Mrs. Haskell said, "but Wal-Mart turned it down. We now plan to fight it with every legal means."

Mr. Howard, Wal-Mart's spokesman, said the company considered the alternate site. "It wasn't the right shape. Our proposal wouldn't fit on it," he said.

One issue that will have to be resolved at the Reisterstown Road site involves a wetlands problem because a stream crosses part the property. "The stream will have to be protected by a buffer zone," says Larry Pilson, of the county Department of Environmental Protection.

Before the Owings Mills store becomes reality, there will be a community input meeting, a zoning administration hearing and, if neighbors have their way, appeals of any decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals and to Circuit Court.

The Pleasant Hills Homeowners Association will hold a community meeting to discuss Wal-Mart at 7 p.m. Thursday at Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church, 10911 Reisterstown Road.

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