Parasite project

August 25, 2006

Ahalf-dozen years ago, folks living along tiny rural roads in a section of southern Anne Arundel County got together with county planners to recommend their preference for future development.

The country crossroads at Wayson's Corner, little changed in decades and most famous for its bingo hall, had grown a bit shabby. But the South County Small Area Plan urged a sprucing-up that maintained "a sense of place" by providing community services and reusing buildings, such as turning the old tobacco warehouse into an antiques mart.

What those folks are getting instead - if developers have their way - is a 128,500-square-foot Target anchoring a shopping center the size of 10 football fields, built on the only forested land left at Wayson's Corner, a stone's throw from Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary.

More offensive even than the outlandish scale of this project is that it's designed almost exclusively to serve people from elsewhere - thousands of commuters whizzing between Prince George's and Calvert counties on nearby Route 4. It's a parasite that will draw on the water, the septic systems, the roadways and the quality of life in that quiet little nook but give nothing back to the mostly black, retired folks who live there. Only the Annapolis-based developers, national retailer and landowner stand to gain.

Local elected officials have responded warily to the constituent outrage, variously blaming each other - or the residents themselves - for failing to put in place regulatory controls to match their goals. Most seem to be parroting the developers' line that because commercial zoning has long in been in place, the project is a done deal.

But prior development battles in South County have proved that ain't necessarily so. As Del. Robert A. Costa, a Deale Republican, observed: "There are a lot more issues than the zoning to be considered," including the impact on traffic, the environment and the community.

The developers, Petrie Ross Ventures, are quite well-connected, though. Their lobbyist, Robert DiPietro, a former longtime aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens, is serving as chief spokesman for her bid to win the Democratic nomination for Maryland comptroller. Mr. DiPietro says Mrs. Owens has no influence on the project, though it requires an extensive administrative review by the county as well as the state. Both noted that the County Council has declined many chances to change the commercial zoning on the property since it was applied in 1952.

County Councilman Edward R. Reilly, who represents Wayson's Corner and should be the residents' chief ally, says he's trying stay neutral in a classic struggle between property rights and environmental concerns.

That's a cop-out. An obvious compromise is right there in the South County Small Area Plan. Created as a guide for just such situations, the residents' work deserves better than to be flatly ignored.

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