Supporters of a proposed Safeway supermarket in south county pressed the Anne Arundel County Council at a public hearing last night not to approve a zoning change that would virtually kill the store plans.
Safeway officials insist that the proposed zoning change - which would block any structure larger than 25,000 square feet - would create a no-win situation for the national grocery chain.
"One should never say never, but I doubt we would proceed with a store even if it got the C3 zoning," said Thomas D. Castleberry, vice president for real estate for Safeway Inc., referring to the zoning category the grocery store chain has requested. County officials want it downgraded to a C1 zoning category.
Although some Safeway opponents who attended the meeting last night took that statement to mean victory, at least one, Paul G. Roche, vice president of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, or SACReD, remained leery.
"They could just be saying that to make the council feel sorry for them," he said. "That could just be a trick."
Although supermarket officials appeared to have walked away from the Deale project in frustration two months ago, a spokesman said last week that the company could move forward with construction. At the very least, Safeway hopes to preserve its zoning classification in an attempt to cut losses if it sells the property, said Gregory A. TenEyck.
But county officials - including County Executive Janet S. Owens - and residents argue that a smaller store would do well at routes 256 and 258. The bottom line, said Roche, is that residents don't want a "big-box store," the kind of development associated with large commercial retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target.
The push by supermarket officials to stop the zoning change came as no surprise to members of SACReD, who figure that as long as Safeway owns the property, it will try to build a store on it.
"The community wants a smaller store, the county wants a smaller store and this down-zoning would accomplish that, but Safeway doesn't want that," said Amanda Spake, president of SACReD. "But the smaller store would still be five times larger than the FoodRite. Safeway is talking about something 11 times larger. You can see how out of scale this is."
Spake added that a Fresh Fields store in Annapolis measures about 25,000 square feet and does brisk business. "There are stores who are making it," she said. "Safeway's plan is outmoded."
Before the hearing last night, Chris Bell of Green Castle Development of Annapolis, who works for Safeway, said that it would be inappropriate for the County Council to change the zoning of the Deale property. The grocery chain bought the land about a decade ago, and at the time it was zoned to allow a 55,000-square-foot structure.
Bell said the county's Office of Planning and Zoning supported that zoning classification until last spring, when Owens asked planners to down-zone the property.
At the same time, in an effort to block construction of the supermarket, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller worked to revise the state's storm-water management laws.
He succeeded, and new regulations make it impossible for Safeway to build a proposed storm-water runoff facility on an adjoining residential property. Instead, if they build a store, supermarket officials must put the runoff facility on the same site.
Last week, Safeway spokesman TenEyck said that was a possibility, but added that the prospect of restarting the planning and permitting process with the county was unattractive to Safeway officials, who have been working for more than 10 years to build a store in Deale.
Bell said yesterday his clients are frustrated."[The property] was zoned to permit a neighborhood shopping center, that's why Safeway bought it," Bell said. "It is unfair to Safeway to do this to them at this point in the process."