When the Anne Arundel County Council approved legislation a year ago giving developers the go-ahead on a 1.4 million-square-foot shopping complex on 400 acres in Hanover, no one spoke against it.
Now, critics of the Arundel Mills mall have found their voices and intend to speak out tonight at a public hearing before the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Worried about the environmental, economic and aesthetic impact of the mall, they have been preparing for weeks to testify before the agencies whose approval is needed for the developer to build on regulated wetlands and forests. The hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Harman Elementary School.
Critics say that the $250 million project near the intersection of Route 100 and the Baltimore Washington Parkway will harm local and regional retail operations, add to pollution and traffic congestion and destroy environmentally valuable and historically significant property in the Piney Run watershed.
"You're talking about a fairly pristine watershed, and it will be absolutely devastated," said Meredith E. Lastbury, an attorney and Annapolis resident. "There's going to be massive disturbance to trees, grasses and any vegetation growing there."
She said the forested growth is a wildlife habitat, as well as a natural filter for storm water runoff.
"Water will run right off the parking lots and all of the oils and toxins will go into the water source right there [Piney Run]," said Lastbury, an organizer of Citizens for Better Landscapes, which was formed in response to the Arundel Mills project. Lastbury, a planner with the Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Commission, said the Arundel Mills site is not in the commission's jurisdiction.
According to the developer's application with the Army Corps of Engineers, the project will fill in 1.43 acres, or 62,155 square feet, of wetlands and more than 3,200 linear feet of waterways. Under state regulations, any action that disturbs more than 5,000 feet of wetlands is considered significant.
In comments filed before tonight's hearing, the Arundel Chapter of the Maryland Sierra Club recommended the project be denied and the state Department of Natural Resources raised serious concerns about the proposal.
A preliminary review by the Corps found that "placing several road crossings across this stream and in the wetlands adjacent to it will severely impair this system's capacity as a viable aquatic resource."
Jennifer Spivak, a founder of Citizens for Better Landscapes, said "the scale of the project causes me grave concerns. I can think of so many other features -- historical landmarks, spaces and places -- that I would want to represent Maryland rather than a glitzy shopping center."
Dennis Connolly, a vice president at the Arlington, Va.-based Mills Corp. and a senior development director on the project, said the company has been working with federal and state officials for 18 months to develop a plan that meets environmental regulations.
Connolly said that project organizers have reduced the area of affected wetlands from nearly 5 acres to 1.39 acres.
"The impact is absolutely as minimal as you can make it," he said.
The Mills Corp. was able to proceed with its Arundel Mills project because of two key unanimous votes last year by the Anne Arundel County Council. A zoning change permitted developers to bypass an additional public hearing, and the council created a tax increment district to pay for $28 million in bonds for road improvements associated with the project.
Mall developers touted the project as a benefit to the county, saying it will generate $5.2 million a year in taxes and 3,500 permanent jobs. They also said the "shoppertainment" center could become a tourist attraction in the same way that its Potomac Mills has brought visitors to Prince William, Va.
Mills officials won the support of many area residents by sharing their plans with community leaders before going to the council and promising to build them a separate shopping center with a grocery store. They also agreed to residents' requests for a realignment of Ridge Road.
"There are things that we will definitely benefit from -- restaurants, entertainment -- but the big benefit is the tax revenue," said Mike Shylanski, president of the Greater Severn Improvement Association. "It's an economic engine and will provide services we don't have in this area. While there will be some environmental damage from the extra traffic, it also means people like me won't have to go to Odenton or Glen Burnie for shopping."
Mall critics challenge the assumption that Arundel Mills will be an economic boon to the county.
"Conventionally, retail is not considered economic development," said Hank Goldstein, executive director of the Baltimore Regional Partnership. He said Arundel Mills will siphon off sales from other businesses.
Goldstein calculated that Howard County will lose $166 million in retail sales.