Easton not alone in growth debate

`Big-box' stores find fights throughout Md.

March 16, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- More than a week after Easton officials effectively banned "big-box" retailers such as Home Depot, the debate about growth in the Colonial-era capital is anything but over.

Instead, developers are attempting an end run around the county seat's 65,000-square-foot building limit, proposing two behemoth stores twice that size for sites just over the town line in business-friendly Talbot County.

The increasingly bitter argument between business leaders and slow-growth advocates here mirrors struggles in many other small communities across Maryland and the United States, where residents are organizing locally and communicating through the Internet to oppose the expansion plans of national chains.

Officials at the National Trust for Historic Preservation say they are monitoring 50 to 100 similar fights against "big-box" stores around the country. And they expect to see more, especially in small towns.

"I think that undeniably, people as consumers like what's inside these stores," said Constance Beaumont, director of state and local policy for the trust. "At the same time, people often don't want what's outside, whether that's traffic, environmental or cultural change."

In Maryland, Chestertown, Kent Island, Rockville and Gaithersburg are among the places struggling with the issue in various ways:

Talbot County opponents have watched with interest as their Kent County neighbors have waged a seven-year legal battle to keep Wal-Mart out of Chestertown, another small county seat with Colonial roots.

More recently, another organized and well-financed citizens group has taken on the world's largest retailer, trying to block Wal-Mart's proposed 155,000-square-foot superstore in Stevensville on Kent Island.

In Montgomery County, Rockville officials called a six-month halt last fall on commercial projects. With the Rockville moratorium due to expire next month, officials appear likely to come up with legislation to limit the size of future retail developments.

Gaithersburg officials have limited retailers to a footprint of 80,000 square feet, but allow two-story buildings, opening the way for 160,000-square-foot stores.

In Talbot, many in the business community complain that changing to more restrictive zoning rules is unfair to developers who made investments based on the county's comprehensive plan that was updated two years ago.

Lee Denny, a prominent Talbot businessman who owns Bob Smith Buick/GM Giant, one of the Shore's largest automobile dealers, said many in the area's business community oppose limits on the size of any business.

"I'm 43, and as far back as my high school business class, we were taught that Easton is a regional center," Denny said. "If you look at a map, you see Easton as a center for commerce. From a broad view, we're better off trying to control growth than trying to chase developers away."

Growth-control advocates counter that limiting the square footage of businesses is no different from height restrictions and other zoning restraints that have been in place in many communities for decades. At issue, they say, is the quality of life for rural Talbot County.

"This is the future of my community, the community where my children will grow up," said John Kaestner, who owns a small construction supply business he said competes with the likes of Home Depot and Lowe's.

"Home Depot wants to come in, and they will come in to our little community unless we put up a bloody fight," Kaestner said.

Talbot County Councilman Philip Carey Foster, the sponsor of legislation aimed at blocking Home Depot and other stores that could be classified as lumberyards from building on industrially zoned sites just outside Easton, agreed. But he said the rush of interest from large retailers who want to come to Easton has forced the issue.

"In the 1998 election, this was absolutely a nonissue," said Foster, an Easton attorney. "But no community can remain stagnant. We've got to decide how to deal with the changes that are part of life."

Critics of growth limits insist that public opinion as demonstrated at public hearings over the past year is skewed by wealthy residents who can afford to trek to Annapolis or Salisbury for shopping and well-to-do retirees who routinely turn out in force.

Noting a survey conducted for the Virginia developer that wants to build a Home Depot, business leaders say working-class families who would benefit the most from the low-cost, big-box retailers form a silent majority that favors more and better shopping options.

"Our survey of 400 residents showed that 65 percent specifically identified Home Depot as a use they'd like to see," developer Terry Richardson told Talbot council members at a hearing last week.

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