County Executive Janet S. Owens says she is troubled by state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's legislative attempt to block a 77,000-square-foot Safeway supermarket and strip mall in Deale.
"I think the Senate president likes to pick fights with me," Owens told reporters yesterday.
Not so, said Miller. "She's new to politics pretty much," he said. "You have to be able to divorce yourself from personalities and debate the issues."
The back-and-forth between the two Democrats is the latest flare-up in their strained relations that Owens says dates to Miller's refusal to support her 1998 campaign for county executive. (Miller says he did support her in the general election, though not in the primary.)
Owens called it "sort of unusual" for a state lawmaker to intervene in a local land-use issue. She said Miller's efforts could unintentionally thwart development in the county because of its broad wording.
Miller's Senate Bill 880 would prohibit new commercial projects in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties from using residentially zoned land to collect storm water runoff if the property is within a half-mile of the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries. That would apply to all of Anne Arundel, county officials say, because of its many rivers and streams. (Miller disputes that its reach would be that broad.)
Safeway, at Anne Arundel's behest, has proposed using 7 acres of residential land to build a storm water pond for its supermarket and strip mall. The county has said that would help ease flooding for several homes downstream.
Miller's proposal "would in essence kill the project," said Safeway spokesman Greg TenEyck. Scaling back the project to fit it entirely on the 9 commercially zoned acres "would not be feasible," TenEyck said.
Miller, whose district includes parts of Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, acknowledges the bill is aimed at the Safeway project but contends his wider goals are to combat sprawl and protect the environment. Safeway's critics say the commercial plaza would pollute a nearby creek and wreck the area's quiet character.
Owens noted that she always has preferred a "mini-Safeway" and took credit when Safeway scaled back from 88,000 square feet to 77,000. The county has since given the supermarket the go-ahead, with opponents vowing to keep fighting it through appeals.
Owens thinks Miller's bill could produce harmful "unintended consequences."
For example, she said, the former David Taylor Research Center near Annapolis could be affected. The land is zoned residential and will need a storm-water management plan to support the high-tech office park planned for the 46.5- acre one-time naval research labs.
Owens worries that industrial expansion near Baltimore-Washington International Airport could be affected for similar reasons.
In addition, county officials point out that in rural areas, a number of commercial uses can be put on residential land, including golf courses, hospitals and dairies.
Miller says his point is simple: Commercial projects should be built wholly on commercial land.
County Council Chairwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, thinks Miller is interfering with a local process. "I just feel this is county business, and we should deal with it," she said. "We don't interfere with state business."
Unlike Gov. Parris N. Glendening, with whom Owens enjoys close ties, Miller has not been a close ally of hers. In 1998, when Owens surprised the political establishment by beating Diane Evans in the Democratic primary, party leaders such as Glendening who had supported Evans coalesced around Owens.
Not Miller, said Owens, despite Miller's assertion to the contrary. "He thought he knew better than I did about the county," she said.
Miller, for his part, noted that Owens named Robert A. "Bobby" Sturgell, the Calvert County Republican who challenged Miller in 1998, to a South County planning committee. Owens said she appointed him because the Sturgells own the Happy Harbor restaurant in Deale.
Despite their cool relationship, Owens said Miller did warn her he would introduce legislation "to block the Safeway."
Safeway, meanwhile, feels caught in the middle. TenEyck noted that the county pushed Safeway to adopt a more regional storm-water facility, which required the purchase of the residential land. "That's the ironic part of this legislation," TenEyck said.
The county confirms it steered Safeway in that direction. "It was an issue that held them up for nearly 10 years," said county spokesman John A. Morris. "The county told them you need to address flooding that currently exists. That's when they acquired additional property to address this concern."