Wegmans Food faces hurdles for huge store in Timonium

Industrial site makes OK from Balto. Co. unlikely

September 30, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County appears unlikely to approve Wegmans Food Markets' plan to build a huge supermarket in Timonium, and the grocery chain has been unwilling to consider other sites the county has proposed.

Wegmans, a family-owned company based in Rochester, N.Y., is generally regarded as operating some of the finest supermarkets in the nation, and corporate officials project that the 130,000-square-foot market they propose would create 550 jobs.

But the land at Texas Station where Wegmans wants to build is one of a dwindling number of industrially zoned parcels in Baltimore County, and the county's planning and economic development departments have a longstanding distaste for putting retail on industrial land because they believe it provides less overall economic benefit.

Fronda J. Cohen, marketing director for the county's Economic Development Department, said the county would love to land Wegmans' 550 jobs and has suggested other locations, but store officials haven't been interested.

"We welcome Wegmans to Baltimore County with open arms, and we hope that they are able to find a site that meets their configuration and yet still allows the county to conserve the finite amount of land that is zoned for manufacturing and light manufacturing uses," Cohen said.

Regardless of the county's suggestions, the store will file development plans with the county in hopes that it can convince the planning board that the project warrants overruling the advice of planning and economic development, said Robert A. Hoffman, Wegmans' local attorney.

"Am I concerned that the planning and economic development aren't embracing the project right now? Yeah, I think that's an issue for us," Hoffman said. "But I think there are some good things in the plan that I'd like to make them aware of perhaps that may adjust their position a little bit."

Hoffman noted the Hunt Valley/Timonium Master Plan, adopted by the County Council in 1998, showing the property Wegmans wants as a potential commercial site.

But the store faces several obstacles. The way Wegmans is attempting to get around the industrial zoning is by a seldom-used type of development plan, called a Planned Unit Development-Commercial, or PUD-C.

The PUD-C is a means for commercial developers to break some of the ordinary rules if their project provides unique public benefits, but it also requires additional community input and the approval of the planning board.

In recent years, the planning board has only once bucked the recommendations of the planning and economic development departments, and that was to deny a project the departments had approved, not the other way around.

Making matters worse for Wegmans, local community group leaders oppose the plan, and a group of businesspeople and property owners, known as SPEAR (Suburban Property Owners Encouraging and Advocating Reason), has worked to kill the proposal, commissioning its own traffic and economic impact studies, which are critical of the store.

Members of the Greater Timonium Community Council were interested in SPEAR's economic projections, but in an area where many think traffic is already bad, they were particularly worried by the group's prediction that Wegmans would add 26,387 trips a day to nearby roads - nearly as many cars as travel along nearby York Road in a given day.

But Wegmans officials have done their own traffic studies and say the SPEAR estimates are far out of line.

The Wegmans study, conducted by the Traffic Group, a White Marsh firm, estimates the store would generate 6,830 trips a day, about a quarter of what the SPEAR study predicted.

"If it goes to the planning board, I'm sure there's going to be some extensive discussion about that and other issues," said Eric Rockwell, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council.

"But it looks as if the various cards are stacked against the proposal there at Texas Station."

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