Vol. 8, No. 24
June 15-21, 2000
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Janet O. and the Big-Box Parade

In these hazy days of almost-summer, our minds drift back to the election campaign of Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens. A key component of her election platform, to many of us its most appealing feature, was her promise to rein in sprawl and unwise development.

Now is the period that will determine whether Janet Owens meets the challenge she set for herself — and whether much of what is happening in citizen planning committees is for naught.

Two developments (pardon the choice of words) appeared on the horizon last week to test Owens. First, her county’s Department of Planning and Code Enforcement mysteriously abandoned its chief barrier to building a massive Safeway complex in Deale, where nothing like it exists for many miles.

Second, the county council took up a serious effort to get a grip on the invasion of the big-box stores (read Wal-Mart) that preservationists consider a threat to the public good.

The Safeway saga is not yet over. But when county officials accepted Safeway’s special pleading last week, they gave the impression that it’s all over but the shopping. That was welcome news to a vocal contingent organized by Safeway, its emissaries and vested interests nearby.

But it was troubling to many others who believe that small area planning committees should have the capacity to chart growth in their communities. A lot of skeptics (including Owens herself) do not object to a Safeway store. But Safeway has refused to redraw its 55,000 square-foot grocery and its multi-store complex to a scale that fits the rural community, as many have suggested.

Elsewhere in this issue, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, praises companies that are willing to work with communities on site selection and design. We’re sorry that Safeway doesn’t merit praise of that sort.

We’re sorry, too, that the county has proceeded in this case in a fashion that erodes faith in government. Five months ago, Planning and Code Enforcement wrote that “the cumulative effect of the clearing, grading, construction of stormwater management ponds … and the potential problems from acidic soils present the possibility of serious environmental consequences.”

Are we to believe now that, on a paper technicality, those serious environmental consequences along the Chesapeake Bay have disappeared?

As far as the “Big Box” bill, Owens apparently has told the developer at Parole planning the 185,000 square-foot Wal-Mart that she will veto the effort to block it. As presently drawn, the bill would limit the footprint of new stores to 80,000 square feet.

It’s a little premature to talk about vetoing a proposal that hasn’t passed yet. And we’re already hearing questions about its constitutionality. But we believe in legislating for the public good, not for the good of an Arkansas corporation that cares nothing about our community. Why not pass the bill and test its legality, which also will test our capacity to manage how we grow?

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly