Big fuss over big store for Timonium

Wegmans expansion hits Md. zoning snag

September 13, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Wegmans Food Markets Inc., a Rochester, N.Y.-based supermarket chain, wants to build a huge store in Timonium -- more than twice the size of a typical Giant or Safeway -- that would include a dining area for 260 people, French pastry shop, bakery, pharmacy and photo lab in addition to aisles of groceries.

But the family-owned chain and the site's developer are facing opposition from local leaders, community groups and businesses worried about traffic congestion and competition.

Critics are hoping to block the store by opposing an amendment to the land's zoning status that would allow retail use. The 20-acre site off Beaver Dam Road north of Padonia Road is zoned for industrial or manufacturing use.

The proposed Timonium store would be part of the upscale chain's push south from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey into the mid-Atlantic. With 64 stores and $2.9 billion in sales last year, Wegmans also plans to open two stores in Northern Virginia over the next two years: one in Fairfax and another in Sterling, just 15 miles apart.

To support its expansion into the mid-Atlantic, the company plans to build a distribution facility in eastern Pennsylvania, company officials said.

The Timonium store would be 130,000 square feet and carry 60,000 products, including 700 different products in its produce department and 300 different cheeses. It would employ 450 to 550 people and generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual sales taxes and property taxes, the company said.

The store's presence in Timonium would benefit workers and consumers alike, company officials said.

"When we look at competition at other stores, we always believe it raises the bar for everyone, and ultimately the consumer wins because they have more of a choice," said Wegmans spokeswoman Katie Crane.

Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World, a mid-Atlantic food industry newspaper, called Wegmans an "outstanding, very customer service-oriented" company with a strong emphasis on perishable departments, such as deli, bakery and sit-down food service.

"For the most part, the big players in the Baltimore area are publicly held companies," Metzger said. "Wegmans is privately held and family owned," and doesn't have pressure coming from Wall Street, he said.

The Timonium site is the only one that works for the company in Baltimore County, said Carol Duquette, Wegmans' manager of civil engineering.

"We are continuing to look elsewhere in Maryland and in Virginia," Duquette said. "If this site doesn't pan out, Wegmans could end up in another county in Maryland. ... Quite frankly, the way the process goes, it's conceivable the approvals would not be granted. That's probably the biggest concern."

The company has an option to purchase the land from its owner, Jacoby Development Inc., pending zoning approval, with an opening projected for 2005, Duquette said.

Atlanta-based Jacoby commissioned a traffic study that's under review by county and state agencies, and Wegmans is still preparing plans for the site, Duquette said. Jacoby officials couldn't be reached for comment.

The area surrounding the site has undergone substantial retail development in recent years, including construction of an adjacent Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse and a Sam's Club as well as a nearby Home Depot.

Most critics of the project say they're not against Wegmans opening a store in Baltimore County but want the site to be used for its intended purpose: manufacturing or industrial.

County officials said the county's long-term economic development plan was to keep Beaver Dam Road north of Padonia mostly for manufacturing and industrial companies to add to the county's economic base.

"The whole Hunt Valley/Timonium corridor has been a very successful employment center in terms of attracting technology and higher wage employers," said Fronda Cohen, marketing director for Baltimore County's Department of Economic Development.

"We believe that, in terms of the overall economic value, we would like to see it used within its existing zoning uses."

Baltimore County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire said he opposed the store because he thinks area residents' food needs are being met by existing supermarkets.

"We have locally owned food outlets in the area, and I would not support anything that would hurt them," he said.

Stuart D. Kaplow, a Towson attorney who represents a group of local business and property owners, including Manekin LLC, Keelty Co. and Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust, said the group opposed the zoning change to allow the Wegmans chain to come in.

"The rules of the county were that that land would be developed industrially," Kaplow said. "In fact, there are a variety of other sites where Wegmans would be welcomed."

Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, an umbrella group of about 30 local community associations, said the council voted unanimously last month to oppose a Wegmans store at that location because of the traffic and zoning concerns.

Wegmans and Jacoby officials are expected to meet to discuss their plans with the council on Wednesday, he said.

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