Owens' letter deals new blow to Safeway plans

Executive demands that company reduce size of supermarket

Zoning change threatened

Anne Arundel

March 28, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

A political row between Anne Arundel County's chief executive and the state Senate president has dealt another blow to plans to build a supermarket strip mall in rural south county.

Like tag-team wrestlers, County Executive Janet S. Owens and Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. have taken turns slamming California-based Safeway Inc.'s plan for a store in Deale, a tiny waterfront community.

Owens wrote Safeway Chairman Steven A. Burd on Monday to demand that the company reduce the size of the proposed store by an unspecified amount or she would try to push through a rezoning of the 9 acres that would limit the size of the store.

"I strongly urge you to change your plan and scale back your project before it is done for you," she said in her toughest statement on the subject.

Rezoning the property would limit a grocery store to 25,000 square feet; Safeway plans a store with 55,000 square feet. The County Council has authority to change zoning until construction begins and the owner is deemed vested.

Owens said in an interview yesterday that she was responding to Miller's attempt to stop the Safeway legislatively. His Senate Bill 880 - which the Senate passed 35-9 Monday night - would have "unintended consequences" that could stymie developments countywide, Owens said.

By pressuring Safeway, she hopes to get Miller to let his storm-water management bill die in the House of Delegates. Miller, whose district includes a slice of southern Arundel, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The one-two punch from Owens and Miller - Democrats who have not been close politically - has frustrated Safeway, which calls its project a "neighborhood shopping center." The company opposes Miller's bill and says it has been blindsided by Owens.

"We are caught in the crossfire between two very powerful political leaders," said company spokesman Greg TenEyck.

TenEyck noted that the county has approved Safeway's site plan and a grading permit for the proposed 77,000-square-foot plaza, which would include several small shops in addition to the supermarket.

"That's a chilling message to send to the business community," TenEyck said.

Owens said she has consistently urged Safeway to build a smaller store to satisfy residents who fear that a standard-size grocery store and strip-style shops would overwhelm the community's quiet character. She said she would have raised the zoning issue earlier but a south county advisory committee's report recommending the same change was proceeding through the bureaucracy.

She said a new grocery store is "wanted and needed" by Deale residents who are tired of driving to Edgewater or Upper Marlboro, but she called the current plan "out of scale."

Owens, labeled anti-business by critics when she was elected in 1998, said she isn't worried about the business community's reaction, saying she has an "amazing track record" at fostering commercial growth.

TenEyck said Safeway is evaluating its options, but offered no details.

The leader of a vocal anti-Safeway group called Owens' letter "an encouraging step."

"In the past, she's just rolled over and said, `It's out of my hands,'" said Amanda Spake, president of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development. Spake said Owens should give Safeway a deadline and specify an acceptable size.

Owens told The Sun that she was purposely leaving such questions to Safeway. "They know what a small Safeway is," she said.

County Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican who represents Deale, said Owens is acting too late. "She could have done this a year ago and lost no time on the battle," he said.

The Safeway saga has had many twists. The county rejected it, then reversed course after deciding that the property was not a floodplain.

Opponents of the project did not relent, unveiling a 12-foot-tall papier-mache puppet of Owens last fall to the strains of the Joni Mitchell song "Big Yellow Taxi," which includes the line: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

After the county grudgingly approved the project late last year, state officials said the discovery of a bald eagle's nest near the site meant no work could begin until the mating season ended June 15.

In her letter, Owens put the blame for the conflict on Safeway. "Your intransigence on the project's size has sparked discord and divisiveness in the Deale community," she said.

The company has no plans to give up and does not build small stores, TenEyck said. "We have invested an awful lot of time and money in this project," he said. "It's not something we would be willing to walk away from."

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