- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

PRINCE FREDERICK, Md. — Walking past signs that promise “Back to School for Less,” customers at Calvert County’s only Wal-Mart pick over stacks of composition books, brightly colored backpacks and jeans for $20. In the half-filled parking lot, a teenager in an orange “cart crew” T-shirt slowly pushes long lines of shopping carts to the front door.

Wal-Mart has big plans for the store, hoping to more than double its size from 91,424 square feet to a 187,000-square-foot, 36-department Supercenter, with a garden center, tire shop and full grocery market. A 145,000-square-foot Wal-Mart is also planned for the town of Dunkirk, about 15 miles to the north.

But those plans may have to be scaled back dramatically. Worried about the effects of two behemoth stores on the rural flavor of the county, the county’s planning commission has recommended the Board of Commissioners place size caps on Wal-Mart and other so-called “big box” stores.

Several communities in Maryland are taking a second look at their zoning regulations in the face of planned big-box expansions, mostly by retail giant Wal-Mart.

Some have eased their laws, welcoming what they hope will be jobs, tax revenues and a way to draw shoppers into their towns. But Calvert and Montgomery counties are drawing the line on how big those stores can be, fearing an influx of traffic, damage to existing businesses and threats to the characters of their communities.

“People didn’t move to Calvert County for quality shopping. Many people who came here appreciate the rural environment,” said John Ward, president of the planning commission. “They moved here to get away from big boxes.”

Wal-Mart has not backed down from these fights. In both Calvert and Montgomery, the company has commissioned polls that it says show residents want more shopping and are opposed to tougher rules. Wal-Mart has organized a petition drive in Montgomery, is trying to form a coalition with other big box stores and is lobbying lawmakers.

“If it passes in Montgomery County, then other counties might look at it. You have the risk of having a ripple effect,” said Mia Masten, a community affairs manager for Wal-Mart, which has 39 stores in the state. “A county should not be able to write laws against one company or industry.”

Many communities in the state have enacted zoning rules designed to limit the size of big box stores or keep them out altogether. Rockville, for example, doesn’t allow buildings bigger than 65,000 square feet.

In Montgomery, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan called for tougher regulations on big box stores after seeing a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Boulder, Colo., while visiting his son in college.

Shocked by its size and the potential impact on traffic, he proposed requiring stores to seek a special exemption if they would be larger than 120,000 square feet and devote 10 percent or more of the floor space to groceries, said spokesman David Weaver.

The County Council, which will take up the legislation in September, was leery of a regulation that would affect primarily Wal-Mart, which has large grocery sections in its Supercenters, said council President Steve Silverman. He plans to propose a bill that would require stores of more than 130,000 square feet to get a special exemption.

“We’ve got a limited amount of land in Montgomery County,” he said. “There is concern that before these things go completely out of the barn that we ought to try to impose some restrictions.”

Calvert County has struggled to keep up with explosive growth as the Washington suburbs push farther outward. New homes crowd the northern and southern parts of the county, and once lightly traveled roads now are choked at rush hour.

The zoning change would cap big box stores at 125,000 square feet in the county seat of Prince Frederick and 90,000 square feet in the county’s smaller town centers. The County Council is expected to vote tomorrow on the cap, and council President Dave Hale predicted it would pass.

“Just the residential growth alone has put such a burden on the infrastructure,” he said. “People are worried that Calvert County will look like everywhere else.”

But some towns have a much different view of big box stores. Elkton, which has approved a 203,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, plans to draw shoppers from nearby Delaware and Pennsylvania and people passing through the area on Interstate 95. The town’s planning director, Jeanne Minner, said she heard no complaints about the store when it was under review.

Easton, home to the first Wal-Mart in Maryland, slapped a 65,000-square-foot cap on big boxes four years ago, worried about overdevelopment. However, the Town Council eliminated the cap in a unanimous vote, saying that existing big box stores can be expanded and new ones built as long as they are adjacent to an existing shopping center.

That likely will allow Lowe’s to build a home improvement store in town, and other big box retailers have asked about building in Easton, said Town Planner Tom Hamilton.

Talbot County has designated Easton as a growth center, and the town would rather have a big box store in an already developed area instead of on farmland, he said.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t want it, but there’s a lot of people who say they don’t want to drive to Annapolis to get what they need,” he said.

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