A proposed 160,000-square- foot Wegmans supermarket in Columbia was approved in a 4-1 vote by a reluctant Howard County Planning Board, but store officials still face several appeals filed by a food workers union.
The two-story store - nearly triple the size of most area supermarkets - and an adjoining two-story garage would be built on 12.2 acres at the southwest corner of Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road, opposite Apple Ford in east Columbia. Parking on the site would total 939 spaces, according to testimony.
The Wegmans, which store officials say they hope to build by late next year, would strengthen the challenge to the dominance of Giant and Safeway chains in Howard County. A Trader Joe's store opened recently nearby in the Gateway Overlook big-box center, and a Harris Teeter store is due to open this year in the Kings Contrivance Village Center.
Before their vote Thursday night, several board members appeared to be troubled by complaints at a hearing Jan. 3 and in written testimony that a traffic study done for the huge store was inadequate.
"If we were kings, we would change the rules right now, but we can't," board Chairman Tammy J. Citaramanis said.
Board member Linda Dombrowski said before the vote, "Our hands are tied."
A third member, David Grabowski, said of the board's dilemma, "We've given the development community a set of criteria, and they've met it."
All three, along with Gary Rosenbaum, voted to approve the site development plan for the store and the adjoining two-story parking garage. Ramsay Alexander Jr. voted against it without explanation.County planners determined in December that the store's traffic study and road improvement plans met the county's requirements, taking that issue out of the board's purview.
The board withheld approval of a height waiver for a 92-foot-high clock tower at the store, because the site, which contains a 35-year-old warehouse last used as a location for the HBO series The Wire, was not posted with a public notice.
After the vote, Wegmans attorney Richard Talkin thanked the board, but the issue is far from resolved.
Tim Goin, vice president and legislative director for United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 27, which represents workers at Giant and Safeway stores, said after the vote, "We will appeal."
The union is opposing nonunion Wegmans stores at several Maryland locations. The union earlier appealed the Planning Board's September decision to allow the store on industrially zoned land and the approval of the traffic plan. Once it has the needed approvals, the store could be built, but if the union appeals succeed, the project could be halted.
Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, told the Planning Board that "new-town" zoning - regulations devised in the 1960s especially to regulate Columbia - is woefully outdated.
"I have a real problem with how new-town regulations are written," she said, adding that they "desperately need revisions" that will be made when a plan for redeveloping Columbia's Town Center is studied this year.
She also told the board that the county is studying traffic problems along Snowden River Parkway because of complaints about growing congestion there.
The board first heard testimony in the Wegmans case Jan. 3, when county planners recommended approval of the site development plan despite protests from a large group of opponents.
Because of the contention, the board accepted written testimony through much of January and put off the discussion and vote until last week.
The board was told that county planners had determined that the traffic plans, which include lengthening left-turn lanes on northbound Snowden River Parkway and widening McGaw Road near the store site, met county standards.
An earlier board approval for using the industrially zoned land for the supermarket and adjoining garage is under appeal, with a hearing scheduled for Feb. 25.
Frank Tavani, a traffic expert hired by the store's critics, said the developer's traffic study, conducted by the Traffic Group, used standards applied to stores of no more than 70,000 square feet and failed to take measurements on Saturdays, when traffic at three nearby big-box centers often clogs Snowden River Parkway.
Residents of Rustling Leaf, the first residential street south of Oakland Mills Road, told the board Jan. 3 that they can't turn left against traffic during rush hours. The additional traffic that Wegmans would bring would make things worse, they said.