Panel decision on Wegmans is appealed

Traffic, loss of high-paying jobs spurred the action, president of Local 27 says

October 05, 2007|By Kathleen Johnston Jarboe | Kathleen Johnston Jarboe,Special to the Sun

An Ellicott City resident and union leader has appealed a Howard County Planning Board decision that permitted Wegmans to build a grocery store on an industrially zoned site in east Columbia, saying the board violated zoning law.

In filing the appeal Wednesday, Buddy Mays said he was motivated by a concern for increased traffic and a loss of high-paying jobs that would accompany the construction of the proposed 160,000-square- foot supermarket.

"What happens with these size stores, they draw from as much as a 25-mile radius. They can destroy any store in that path," said Mays, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 27, which represents grocery workers.

Not a union store

Wegmans is not a union store. But Mays said that status did not cause his complaint, noting he did not fight other non-union stores, such as Harris Teeter or Food Lion, from coming to the county.

He said grocery workers who lost jobs at local stores and went to work at Wegmans would lose benefits, vacation time and retirement credits earned through years of service.

"Whether [Wegmans] creates jobs or not, it doesn't mean it is the same kind of job," he said.

The Sept. 6 Planning Board ruling allowed a large grocery store to be built by expanding the scope of uses permitted on 181 acres of industrially zoned property near Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road.

Hearing examiner

Under county procedure, a hearing examiner will review the matter and reject the motion or ask the Planning Board to reconsider its ruling.

A Wegmans representative said she hoped the appeal would not slow the grocer from building a store.

"We have received our approval. We believe that it is correct, and we plan to vigorously defend it," said spokeswoman Jo Natale.

In the appeal, Mays said the Planning Board did not have the authority to approve the usage amendment.

He said such changes must be made by the Zoning Board, the actions of which can be overturned by citizen referendum. He also said Howard Research and Development Corp., an arm of General Growth Properties Inc., did not have the right to request the amendment because it did not own the land in dispute.

Appeal supported

Another group representing grocery stores with union employees has supported the appeal, calling the Planning Board ruling an invitation for more big-box stores to open on the site.

"Big boxes don't bring good, high-paying jobs. Ninety-nine percent of the people who live in Columbia don't work in big boxes. [Those workers] can't afford to live in Columbia," said Torrey Jacobsen Jr., executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Retail Food Industry Joint Labor Management Fund.

Meanwhile, a Columbia resident has begun circulating letters in the area around the proposed store questioning the traffic study conducted by Wegmans.

January study

The letter, distributed by Philip Rouseau, said the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer studied traffic Jan. 18, when snow was predicted and few people would have been on the roads. Rouseau also said the traffic study did not include several intersections that would be affected by Wegmans traffic.

"Regardless of whether you like Wegmans or not, the question is whether a fair and accurate traffic study was done," Rouseau wrote.

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