Dispute over stores in Bel Air goes to court

September 25, 1994|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Mike Farabaugh contributed to this article.

The Martin's grocery chain and Toys 'R' Us want to build the largest stores of their types in Bel Air, but an appeal by Klein's Supermarkets has put approval of the $7 million project in the hands of a Harford Circuit Court judge.

Bel Air's Board of Commissioners approved zoning for the two stores June 20.

But attorneys representing Colgate Investments, which owns Klein's Supermarkets, and Steve Bulette, a resident of Wakefield Manor behind the site, appealed the decision, alleging that the town approved zoning with evidence that was not properly submitted by the developer.

Judge Cypert O. Whitfill heard testimony Thursday and said he would render a written decision as soon as his schedule permits.

"I realize time is money in this matter, so I will try to respond in a timely fashion," the judge said.

If Judge Whitfill denies the appeal, the project -- which includes a 60,000-square-foot Martin's and a 30,000-square-foot Toys 'R' Us would be built at Route 24 and MacPhail Road.

Albert J. A. Young, an attorney for RVG Management & Development Co., the Mechanicsburg, Pa., developer of the two stores, said he believes the appeal is Klein's attempt to block competition.

"I think the Kleins are very respected members of the community. They're community-minded and very active and contribute resources to the community," Mr. Young said. "But to suggest that competition doesn't enter into this at all is very difficult to believe."

Robert J. Carson, a lawyer who represents the Klein family and Mr. Bulette, said the appeal has nothing to do with competition. "It's not a family that opposes everything," Mr. Carson said. "The Kleins have not had a history of opposing others from coming in or competition."

"We had high hopes to have [the toy store] open for the Christmas season. But now, with the Klein's appeal, it won't open until next July," said Robert V. Gothier Sr., RVG's president.

Klein's Supermarkets, which has five stores in Harford, is the county leader in grocery sales. Between May 1993 and April 1994, the Harford-based, family-owned chain had $52.3 million in sales, a 14.7 percent share of the Harford market, according to Food World, a monthly trade publication covering the food industry.

If Martin's does come to Bel Air, it would be the largest grocery store in the county. The store is part of the Carlisle, Pa.-based Giant Food Stores Inc., which had $1.1 billion in sales last year.

"That [Martin's] store has the possibility of doing $20 million in sales a year," said Food World Publisher Jeffrey W. Metzger. "You're not talking about a second-rate competitor. You're talking about a company with deep pockets and one that markets aggressively."

At Thursday's hearing, Judge Whitfill said he had read the 33-page appeal memorandum and the 27-page response. He asked attorneys for both sides to focus on specific issues, and quizzed them about conditional-use zoning, environmental impact requirements and due process in the town commissioners' approving the application to build the stores.

Mr. Carson asked the court to revoke the conditional-use zoning, which allows commercial projects of more than 7,500 square feet. The commissioners had approved the site for commercial development in 1988.

Mr. Carson cited the lack of any record of a written environmental impact report, contending that no expert from the Department of Natural Resources had filed specific findings regarding the possible presence of endangered wildlife, forestation delineation and other visual resources.

He contended that all the studies and reports should have been made in writing and taken to a public forum for scrutiny.

"That clearly was not done," Mr. Carson said.

Mr. Young and Claire P. Blomquist, attorney for the Town of Bel Air, contended that reports were given to the planning commission and the town commissioners, and that plans did not have to be so specific at that stage of the application process.

Mr. Carson also claimed that RVG failed to notify owners of abutting property about its building plans and public hearings on those plans.

Earlier, he had called those alleged missteps part of a larger effort to rush the project through the zoning approval process.

"We fully complied with each and every ordinance," Mr. Young said. "The effort was unusually comprehensive. Nothing was done outside the normal course" of zoning procedure.

RVG gave the town commissioners an environmental report that the board accepted, and submitted traffic and market studies for the site even though those are not required under the zoning ordinance, Mr. Young said.

An affidavit from Carol Deibel, the town's planning and community development director who oversees development regulations and zoning ordinances, also supported the developers.

She said RVG followed the proper procedures for obtaining zoning for a project of its size by meeting with the town's Concept Plan Review Committee, submitting an application, making a presentation to the commission and meeting with various state agencies.

Ms. Deibel said owners of property that borders the West MacPhail Road site were not immediately notified of RVG's plans because of a clerical error, but were notified when the error was discovered. She said the notices were sent before the June commission meeting.

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