As part of Governor Parris Glendening’s smart growth agenda, the Maryland Department of Planning has decided to assist Kent County in its nine year battle to block a Wal-Mart store.
Under a rarely employed 1974 law, the state has the authority to participate in local land use proceedings. Earlier this year, Gov. Glendening announced that his administration would revive the law to address development that has smart growth implications. The law allows the state to provide assistance to local governments and to file legal briefs that support, oppose, or recommend changes to particular projects. Final decision-making authority, however, remains in the hands of local officials and the courts.
In June, after more than fourteen hours of testimony and deliberations, the Kent County Planning Commission voted 5-1 to reject Wal-Mart’s proposal to build a 108,000 square foot superstore on the outskirts of Chestertown, a lively, 300-year-old town of 4,000 people. Wal-Mart challenged the decision in court. The state planning department will provide legal assistance and has filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Kent County.
“It is so gratifying to know there is a partner there to back you up,” said Chestertown Mayor Margo Bailey. “Having a big powerhouse like the state jump in gives us credibility.”
The grassroots Coalition for the Preservation of Chestertown had hoped the Planning Commission’s decision would end a fight that has waged for nine years and is thought to be the longest big box battle in the nation. Wal-Mart’s plans to build in this rural county of 19,000 people on Maryland’s Eastern Shore were first revealed in 1992. Three years later, the Planning Commission approved the project, but the citizens group appealed.
Finally, after years of litigation, Maryland’s second highest court ordered the Planning Commission to reconsider the proposal and to pay particular attention to its impact on traffic and the local economy. This time the Commission voted against the project, concluding that, while Wal-Mart’s traffic impacts could be mitigated, its economic impacts could not.
The superstore’s estimated annual sales of $52 million would be equivalent to 40 percent of the county’s total retail sales, or $5,000 per household. The Commission concluded that the county could not absorb that much new retail without destroying dozens of existing businesses and undermining downtown Chestertown.
The Wal-Mart case is one of three development projects in which the state has intervened. The state will also assist local officials and private developers in designing residential developments in Annapolis and Gaithersburg.
In all three of cases the state is supporting the position of the local government. When Gov. Glendening announced the new strategy in May, however, he noted that on some occasions the state might oppose local officials, and even take them to court, to block projects inconsistent with Maryland’s smart growth policies.