Volume 12, Issue 30 ~ July 22-28, 2004
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Calvert Fights Its Battle of the Bulge

In an ideal world where smooth traffic flow and business competition prevail, the issue still remains as to whether Wal-Mart and other big boxes agree with Calvert’s intent of preserving its rural character.
by Lauren Silver

Big-box rules don’t target Wal-Mart, county says.

The “Beast of Bentonville” is knock, knock, knockin’ on Calvert’s door — yet again. So dubbed for its mammoth size and home in Bentonville, Arkansas, the retail juggernaut that is Wal-Mart is determined to expand by more than 100,000 square feet its existing store in Prince Frederick, as well as set up shop just 15 miles to the north in Dunkirk.

Wal-Mart’s wanderlust has unwrapped a big box of wrangling as Calvert Countians and Wal-Mart fight their own battle of the bulge in Solomons, Lusby, St. Leonard, Prince Frederick, Huntingtown and Dunkirk.

Calvert, however, is just one destination among thousands Wal-Mart already has or plans to call home. Since its co-founding by Sam and Bud Walton in Rogersville, Arkansas 42 years ago, the mom-and-pop store turned retail king has taken flight nation and worldwide, landing in all 50 states and in 10 countries across the globe. By the start of next year, the company hopes to add almost 300 stores to the already 2,971 on U.S. soil and 140 to its 1,499 stores abroad. That’s a bulge of 50 million square feet — about 250,000 of which are aimed at Calvert County.

In support of its Calvert expansion, Wal-Mart Prince Frederick mustered local soldiers. More than 2,600 shoppers signed a petition of support, according to Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mia Masten.

The retail giant campaigned on other fronts, as well, flooding Calvert mailboxes with flyers claiming, “your Calvert County Government is looking to tell you where you can shop in the future … and Wal-Mart Supercenters are not on that list.” The same message blazed from a full page ad in the Calvert Recorder and the Calvert Independent.

Citizen proponents responded with a wave of e-mails to the five county commissioners and to Calvert’s planning and zoning director, Frank Jaklitsch, and also saturated editors of Southern Maryland newspapers with letters. Most mentioned the inconvenience posed by traveling to other counties to shop, lower grocery prices and the creation of local jobs.

Wal-Mart supporters claim that despite the benefits, opponents hold on to a myopic vision of a Wal-Mart that destroys, rather than serves communities. “We are blindsided by claims that Calvert County will become another Waldorf,” wrote Laurie Eagan of Sunderland, who welcomes Wal-Mart’s expansion. “Fear has taken over reason.”

The pro-Wal-Mart campaign surged on even after the hearing. “Joe,” Wal-Mart’s otherwise nameless spokesperson, telephoned Calvert households the week after the hearing to convince residents they needed another store in Dunkirk. Joe, however, hung up the phone when questioned about his own role.

Small business owners and citizens organized their own counter-campaigns. Staked out at Dunkirk Safeway with her mother, Olivia Campbell collected 1,100 signatures from shoppers, family and friends who oppose Wal-Mart’s continuing encroachment into the county. Local retailers of the Dunkirk shopping center presented their own petitions for customers to sign in opposition to Wal-Mart’s expansion.

Convergence of the Twain
The sides met July 13 at Prince Frederick High School, where some 400 citizens proclaimed their opinions in shirt-front stickers, at least one mobile billboard and almost four hours of testimony.

Wal-Mart was on everybody’s minds, but the County Board of Commissioners called the public hearing with the broader view of deciding how — and where — big-box retail growth fits into the county’s plan for its future.

That’s an issue that’s been on the back burner since Calvert’s comprehensive plan was last revised in 1997. Over the last year, the citizen Planning Commission and the elected Board of County Commissioners set three criteria to frame their thinking: minimizing traffic snarls, supporting local business and maintaining a harmonious aesthetic.

The county’s professional planners translated those standards into two amendments to the county’s zoning ordinance.

“The county can’t write a law that says we like Target, but not Wal-Mart,” said board president David Hale.

Instead of targeting Wal-Mart, the amendments could put the lid on both Wal-Mart and other big boxes in Calvert County by —

1. Both limiting the size of big box stores within parameters that range from 75,000 to 150,000 square feet; and allowing such stores only in town centers and possibly only the centers that don’t bottleneck the main flow of traffic along Route 2-4.

2. Requiring adequate public facilities standards for commercial development, as is already done for residential development.

If Wal-Mart’s expansion plans didn’t promote the proposed amendments, they sure did invigorate debate over whether there’s room for big boxes in what’s supposed to be a county of small town centers braced against urban sprawl.

On July 13, all those citizens converged on the high school to tell Calvert’s planners and lawmakers why and where they stood for or against the big box regulations that will decide the fate of Wal-Mart in Maryland’s fastest growing county.

Olivia Campbell and other Wal-Mart opponents signed up to warn all of those listening that packaged within big boxes are the instruments of community degradation.

“We heard about Wal-Mart’s petition and said ‘hey, we’ve got to do something, this is our community,” she said. “I’m not anti-Wal-Mart, I’m pro Calvert County.”

Campbell, like many opponents, objects to size. Cherishing Calvert’s small-town atmosphere, they fear that big boxes will take over the land, pollute air and water, overwhelm local businesses and bring already increasing traffic congestion to a standstill. Campbell wants to see big boxes no larger than 60,000 square feet.

Others at the hearing voiced their fear that along with the monstrous size of big boxes follows monstrous impacts to the community.

Samantha Burke — representing the Mid-Atlantic Retail Food Industry — warned that big boxes “set the stage for a higher population and income taxes, and homogenize America by building stores that have no relation to their surroundings.”

Others addressed big boxes as they relate to residents’ vision of a quality life in the county. Minimizing traffic, maintaining a strong business climate and ensuring that large stores are attractive and compatible with the community are prime concerns.

“Calvert citizens do not need a super anything,” said Laura Abramson of St. Leonard. “We live in this small county because we love this small county.”

Supporters of Wal-Mart and other big boxes consider themselves no less the pro-Calvert County mindset. Residents laying out the welcome mat for Wal-Mart said they crave its discount prices and one-stop convenience while appreciating increased tax revenue and employment.

Among them was Charlotte Ersoy of Prince Frederick. “Big box stores are critically important for our quality of living, not to mention for an employment boost,” she said.

Other speakers used their two minutes to highlight the ease of nearby shopping that surrounding counties have enjoyed for years — but Calvert residents continue to miss out on.

“I’m tired of driving 45 to 60 minutes to Annapolis for what I need,” said Betty Alley of Chesapeake Beach. “For people who are disabled, it clearly is a hardship to drive that far.”

Opponents counter that sitting through an hour’s worth of traffic would be no easier task. Between 1994 and 2004, the largest traffic increase on Rt. 2-4 occurred where it intersects Rt. 231 in front of the Prince Frederick Wal-Mart.

“Pressure to build larger stores will continue to grow,” said planning and zoning’s Greg Bowen, adding that by 2010, the traffic volume in Dunkirk will exceed its capacity by 30 percent during peak hours. For some, though, the surge in local traffic would be worth the convenience of nearby one-stop shopping.

One Stop Here Means No Stops There
Local businesses fear that one stop at Wal-Mart translates into no stops at their shops. To lessen the threat that big boxes pose to small business owners, one proposed regulation would allocate space to smaller businesses along the big box anchor. Skeptics countered this argument too, noting that should the anchor sink, small retailers may struggle to stay afloat.

In an ideal world where smooth traffic flow and business competition prevail, the issue still remains as to whether Wal-Mart and other big box stores agree with Calvert’s master plan, with its intent of preserving the county’s rural character.

“The larger big boxes get, the quicker you lose your rural character,” said Richard Packerd, who spoke in favor of closing the door on Wal-Mart’s further expansion into the county.

Until the record closes at 4:30pm on June 27, Calvert Countians will continue to debate the pros and cons of regulating big boxes.

Then weighing the assembled comments will be up to the planning commission. Those seven citizens will make recommendations on whether or not to limit size and placement, plus whether to extend adequate facilities requirements to stores that bring in more than 400 cars a day. Next, the five county commissioners will sign a resolution — not necessarily in accordance with the commission’s advice — adding the adopted changes to the zoning ordinance.

Whatever they decide, Calvert citizens are likely to remain split.

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