Two stores, two reactions

Hundreds at meeting denounce plans for a Wal-Mart in Crofton

April 28, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

Waving signs, wearing pins and even repeating a chant of "Wal-Mart, no!" that got one man escorted from the room, a rowdy crowd of more than 300 West County residents began laying the groundwork to stop the world's largest retailer from coming to Crofton.

Two weeks after Wal-Mart officials rebuffed attempts to learn about the recently disclosed plans to build a 143,000-square-foot store on Route 3, they faced an impatient, riled crowd Tuesday night at Crofton Middle School.

Often shouting over two company representatives, the residents asserted that the development would further clog the highway, harm the Patuxent River watershed and attract crime.

After the Wal-Mart officials left, the Greater Crofton Council voted to oppose the project, then began to strategize how to halt it.

"We are prepared to do what it takes, at whatever the cost, to challenge Wal-Mart," Torrey C. Jacobsen Jr., president of the umbrella organization of more than 30 communities, said Wednesday. "We are not playing games with Wal-Mart. They have never met anyone like us."

Wal-Mart signed a purchase agreement for the land with William Berkshire, a Crofton developer, in December. The Arkansas-based company submitted a traffic study for the development last month and recently applied for a building permit, and a grading permit is pending, county officials said.

The 20-arce parcel has been zoned for big-box commercial construction since a comprehensive rezoning in 1988, and that zoning designation, C3, was reaffirmed in Crofton's small area plan in 2001.

Berkshire did not return phone calls seeking comment.

County Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly estimated the project won't break ground for at least a year, based on the traffic and environmental approvals that need to be obtained.

Reilly, a Republican whose home is some 2,000 feet from the proposed Wal-Mart, said in a question-and-answer session with residents after Wal-Mart representatives left that "there will be plenty of legal opportunity ... to challenge this thing."

As for mounting community opposition to Wal-Mart, he said: "In regard to protesting and putting up signs, I don't think that will be useful, [but] it can't hurt," Reilly said. "Emotion isn't going to do a whole lot. ... I'm going to try to work smart."

The Crofton council has launched an online petition against the store, netting more than 800 names since Jacobsen said he learned of the proposal this month. He called on residents to apply pressure on their elected county and state officials.

Residents also believe they can challenge the project on environmental and traffic grounds. Engineers propose burying wetlands at the rear of the property and raising the grade of the property by building a retaining wall. The wetlands, less than a quarter-acre in size, are near the Little Patuxent River.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has not received a permit request from Wal-Mart, but state environmental permits are usually among the last a builder receives, said Julie Oberg, an MDE spokeswoman. She said some county permits are conditioned on MDE approval.

Engineers for Wal-Mart have proposed a traffic signal for southbound traffic on Route 3, which connects Interstate 97 in Millersville to U.S. 301 in Bowie. They also seek to add southbound left-turn lanes at the intersection of Route 3 and Route 450; a dedicated through-lane at Route 3 and Route 424; and other lane widenings on Cronson and Crawford boulevards.

County and state officials have acknowledged that the nine-mile stretch between Route 32 in Millersville and U.S. 50 in Bowie is long overdue for an overhaul.

"We want to meet and exceed traffic standards," said Rhoda Washington, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. But the company did not have a traffic engineer at Tuesday's meeting.

The responses to the proposed highway improvements drew skeptical groans from the audience.

At several points, Washington was interrupted as she tried to respond to a crowd that ignored the moderator, Jacobsen, and blurted out questions.

"This is not what I expected," Washington said at one point

Even before the meeting, a man grabbed the microphone and began yelling to the crowd, "When I say `Wal-Mart,' you say, `No!'" The crowd followed along until council members escorted him out.

Washington told the audience that a Wal-Mart in Crofton is needed because the other area locations "are completely overshopped."

The fifth Wal-Mart in Anne Arundel County would include a garden center and a tire/lube station. The retailer also operates two Sam's Clubs in the county, in Laurel and Parole.

Each of the county's Wal-Marts is within 12 miles of the proposed site - and that does not include an outlet about five miles south in Bowie, in Prince George's County.

"I've shopped there. I don't need it here," said Trish Walsh, an 11-year Crofton resident. "It's not needed. It will increase traffic."

The meeting was prompted after Wal-Mart officials spoke to the Greater Crofton Council two weeks earlier. Few details were offered, and they agreed to return for the special community forum.

"This will be a store of the community," Washington said in an interview yesterday, "in terms of size and the architectural rendering." She said benefits would include 350 jobs and an increased tax base. She could not say, however, when Wal-Mart officials would again meet with the public.

Judy Wilson, executive director of the Greater Crofton Chamber of Commerce, said she contacted Wal-Mart so the business community could learn more about the proposal. Her group had not received a response.

"It makes me wonder how important it is for community relations," she said Tuesday.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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