Same issues concern critics of Arundel, Va. mega malls

Mills Corp. addressing runoff, traffic at Md. site

July 04, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Their arguments have been called extremist, alarmist and off-the-wall. But claims by a newly formed group that the proposed Arundel Mills mall will destroy the Piney Run watershed and create traffic gridlock are based on the impacts associated with a similar mall in Virginia.

While Prince William County officials view Potomac Mills mall as an economic success, others say the shopping complex has led to deterioration of nearby Potomac River tributaries and has been a major contributor to the area's notorious traffic snarls.

Now Virginia's No. 1 tourist destination, Potomac Mills was built in 1986 by the same developer planning the 1.4 million-square-foot mega mall in Hanover.

"We have paid an environmental price; we have gained a marginal economic advantage, and we have paid a tremendous price in terms of traffic congestion and in the quality of life in the surrounding area," said James Waggener, a founder of the Prince William Natural Resources Council and a member of the Prince William County Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Fear that the proposed Arundel Mills mall will bring similar problems to Anne Arundel County led to formation of Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development.

With groundbreaking for the mall less than two weeks away, the group is trying to derail a project that has the support of most elected officials and several community groups.

On Friday, group members delivered a petition, signed by 864 people opposing the mall, to state and federal regulators reviewing the Mills Corp. application to build on 400 acres of the Piney Run watershed, including protected wetlands and forests.

They plan to send copies to County Executive Janet S. Owens, County Council members, state legislators and congressional representatives.

"The opposition in the community has been pretty overwhelming," said Meredith E. Lathbury, an Annapolis resident and member of Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development. "I'm really encouraged; I felt like such a lone ranger for a long time. I couldn't understand why nobody was speaking up."

The group maintains that civic association leaders in the Hanover area who backed the mall did not represent the sentiments of most residents. Members of Concerned Citizens say that many residents were unaware of the project or believed it was a "done deal" they had no chance of fighting.

"The battle really becomes one of getting political strength by getting more and more numbers," said Jessup resident Gary Mauler, an opposition organizer.

Arundel Mills would be the largest mall in the county, with about 200 stores, including discount retailers and factory outlets, a 30-screen movie theater, restaurants and perhaps a skateboarding facility. Supporters say the project will produce $5.2 million a year in county taxes and 3,500 permanent jobs, from entry-level to management positions.

Officials with the Arlington, Va.-based Mills Corp. have stressed that they will preserve 160 acres of woods on the project site near Route 100 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The developer says that its storm water management devices will make the runoff on the site "cleaner and healthier than pre-development conditions" and that road improvements they are making will reduce congestion.

Storm water concerns

However, Chris Jones, a biology professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said he has not come across a storm water management device that improves water quality.

"It's rather predictable that if you have a large amount of pavement, you're going to have a problem," said Jones, who has studied storm water management facilities in Virginia, including those at Potomac Mills.

He said the system there has resulted in sediment building up in Neabsco Creek and severe erosion in Cowbranch, part of the creek.

"There are very few aquatic animals left in that creek," Jones said. "But Potomac Mills is sort of an extreme case because the method they used was not that good and the effects were more severe than necessary."

Ed Vinson, a senior vice president of development with Mills Corp., said that each Mills project conforms to local, state and federal environmental regulations.

"Mills has no knowledge that the report on the stream is accurate," Vinson said.

Financial catalyst

Kathy Bentz, communications director with Prince William County, said that Potomac Mills generates about $7.6 million a year in county taxes.

"In terms of small business and retail, it's had a tremendous spinoff impact," she said. Bentz added that the county is now focused on recruiting high-technology and telecommunications businesses.

The $250 million Arundel Mills project generated little criticism last year when the County Council handed out a zoning change and a special financing package. The first public hint of dissent came at a June 17 hearing, sponsored by the federal and state agencies reviewing Mills Corp.'s request to build on wetlands.

Group criticized

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