After a short rally by Walmart opposition at the Constant Friendship store, the Oct. 2 County Council meeting introduced a Resolution petitioning the State Highway Administration to deny acess in and out of the proposed Walmart site on 924. The State Highway Administration already denies access to the site from Rt 24. The lot Walmart proposes to build on also has two additional large lots that have not yet been developed.
Councilman McMahan presented a 6 minute video shot at the intersection of 924 and Bel Air South Parkway/Laurel Bush Road of the current traffic and safety issues already existing at the proposed site and discussed how a small part of 924 is proposed by the Walmart documents submitted to the county to be widened to 5 or 6 lanes to accomodate traffic. The video easily showed how adding 50% more vehicles to what Councilwoman Lisanti called currently a "traffic nightmare" is just not feasible. Walmart's plans call for another traffic light on 924 just 800 ft from Bel Air South Parkway and just 900 ft from Patterson Mill Rd in an area already constricted by traffic lights and heavy traffic.
Councilman McMahan presented his case as a public safety issue due to current frustrations of drivers in the area taking chances trying to turn on/off 924, the new fire substation at Patterson Mill trying to respond to calls with gridlock of 50% more traffic when minutes mean lives, the safety of nearby children traveling to schools and nearby fast food places by foot, and a facility with elderly residents.
"There was every opportunity at the time for this property to be developed, thus defining what the community could be, but that didn't happen," he said, explaining that the community developed around it instead and the Walmart now constitutes infill development.
"Infill development has the responsibility to conform to the size and scale of the neighborhood around it," he said.
Councilman Slutsky and Councilwoman Lisanti were the two members of the Council who opposed the Resolution. "This is a very troubling resolution for me," Slutzky said, wondering what the "unintended consequences" are of "an effort to manipulate a zoning use."
"The laws also protect the people who understood what the plan was for Harford County for more than 35 years," he said. "If we do this, we pass this resolution, what happens the next time? Those people that want to take the townhouses out of a legally permitted R3 neighborhood will say to the council we need to do that."
Ms. Lisanti did not fully understand the Resolution purpose and asked if this was an attempt to land lock the site. "This property is zoned properly," she said. "There is nothing this county council can do to change that. We are not permitted by state law to do spot zoning."
Councilman Guthrie presented a petition that Walmart had sent to all of the Council with over 1300 signature in support of the new Walmart. You might remember from my previous blog that Walmart was telling customers at the Constant Friendship store that that location was closing and to sign to support a new store in Bel Air. Many thought regardless of whether or not a new store was built the Abingdon store was closing. The signatures were from all over Maryland and some from out of state. Attempts by volunteer community organizations to index the signatures may take place.
Council President Billy Boniface told the crowd that had gathered, "One of the problems is the law's broken, quite frankly, or we wouldn't be here," he said. "No one envisioned when we changed the zoning to B3 that we would be creating a large box store." and "We let you down because we didn't recognize the fact that you could have a big box come in there," he said. "The Department of Planning and Zoning didn't let us know that could happen."
Councilman Slutsky diagreed saying this was the plan from the 1970's and the plan has worked. The zoning for this property was changed because people did not want R4 and nobody opposed B3 zoning, the most intense zoning that could include adult book stores and a detention center. He chastised residents who bought their homes not knowing they were moving into the development envelope, and as one citizen said later it felt like a "threat" when he mentioned building the detention center there.
At the present time 85% of all Harford County residents live in the development envelope.
The Resolution passed 5 to 2 with Slutsky and Lisanti opposed.
Mr. Boniface is correct that the law is broken. What may have seemed like a great plan in 1970 needs to be tweaked and changed to reflect reality. The reality is this area cannot handle 50% more traffic that would be generated by a big box store, over 10,000 additional cars daily to a site that currently generates over 18,000 cars. The site might be zoned properly for it but the roads now, or as proposed, are inadequate for it and will create major public safety issues. Walmart might be willing to pay for enhancements near the site, but the overall "traffic nightmare" will become gridlock trying to get in or out of the area around the site and traffic backups as far back as 24 and 924, and in towards Bel Air heading south. Some neighborhood such as Bright Oaks could be regulated to be right turn only on to 924 causing even more traffic going in a direction they don't wish to go?
Even Boulevard at Box Hill recognized another traffic light on 924 was inconceivable and they already have the widened roads. If a shopping center the size of Boulevard at Box Hill can be accessed by side roads that are only two lanes and only one way on 924, why should the quality and safety of residential neighborhoods be destroyed to appease Walmart?
Walmart seems oblivious to this fact. They see the dollar signs and think if they build a new store people will come, but will they? Will they have as many shoppers as they have now. and could continue to have and grow, at Constant Friendship if they rebuilt there? Given the choice of dragging through gridlock and long commute times to the site, wouldn't it be easier for customers to the east to go to the Aberdeen superstore and to the west, the Fallston superstore and get there faster and easier? This will be an every day occurance, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day the store will be open. If people went crazy being stuck at Constant Friendship during the holidays last year, where the roads and infrasturcture support big box stores, why would anyone with common sense think an area already a "traffic nightmare" on a daily basis without the roads and infrastructure be an improvement?
This is a lose/lose for the people who live nearby and for Walmart who is only looking at the dollar signs and not the reality that many customers will go elsewhere.
Kudos to Councilman McMahan and those who voted yes to this resolution for rallying for not just the citizens who live in this area, but to all the council members that are recognizing we cannot continue to do things based on a plan that is outdated and no longer works.