ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals Tuesday approved a subdivision plan for a Chestertown Wal-Mart store, but the decision may just create another roadblock in the company’s nearly seven-year quest to build a 107,000-square-foot facility.
In November 1992 Wal-Mart announced it bought an old airfield in Chestertown, called Scheeler’s Field, for $1.4 million. The Kent County Planning Commission approved two preliminary and a final site plan, but a group of residents, The Coalition to Preserve Chestertown, fought each one in court, according to the opinion.
Wal-Mart proposed to divide Scheeler Field into three parcels and to build a megastore in the middle section. Years of legal speed bumps have since kept the Arkansas-based retailer from building on the Scheeler site, according to the judge’s ruling.
Wal-Mart never broke ground. Only part of its final site plan is complete.
The Court of Special Appeals decision affirms a February 1998 ruling by the Kent County Circuit Court approving the subdivision. Now the planning commission must determine what effect the Wal-Mart store would have on traffic and existing local businesses before the store can go forward.
“They can’t get a building permit until the case is over,” said Phillip W. Hoon, lawyer for the coalition. Because the opinion is 90 pages, and because he hasn’t seen it, Hoon said he can’t determine what action the group will take from here.
Wal-Mart’s lawyer Paul D. Barker also declined to discuss the case until he’d read the opinion.
The coalition argued in the appeal that a new Wal-Mart could force as many as 50 local businesses to close. Wal-Mart could create up to 200 new jobs, but the coalition said that loss of local jobs cancels the creation of new ones.
Chestertown residents Brenda and Kenneth Horrocks, who head the coalition with Christian Havemeyer, once owned a bakery close to the site. Brenda said she feared the new Wal-Mart would have an in-store bakery that would put hers out of business. The Horrocks sold their bakery, and now Brenda works for Hoon.
“This has become, for me, good against evil, right against wrong,” she said. “These people are so big and they have bullied communities for so long into believing that they have no choice.”
The coalition has said it would drop the suit if Wal-Mart reduced the store to 50,000-square-feet, but Wal-Mart rejected it.
“It’s not, `Yes Wal-Mart,’, it’s not, `No Wal-Mart,’ it’s `What size Wal-Mart?’,” Horrocks said.
“We’re not saying that Wal-Mart can’t come. We’ve been saying for years that if they want to come on a scale that’s compatible with their retail market that they would be welcome here.”
Chestertown Mayor Margo Bailey, who also works in a town bookstore, said large-scale stores like the one Wal-Mart wants aren’t usually built beside two-lane roads like the ones that run through rural Kent County.
“Wal-Mart may be technically outside the town. But naturally, it’s going to impact us. It’s the roads in town that will bear the brunt of the traffic,” she added, noting that Scheeler Field is just outside Chestertown’s corporate boundaries.
Wal-Mart spokesman Keith Morris told The Washington Post in July that the store will go up as planned.
“Certainly, there’s been a vocal minority that says they don’t want it for various reasons,” he told the paper. “At this point, we remain committed to the market. It seems that a great majority view it as an economic boon to the area.”
Morris did not return calls Tuesday and Wednesday from Capital News Service.
The Kent County Planning Commission now waits for Wal-Mart to follow through on one of the Planning Commission’s earlier conditions that they come up with a traffic study. Wal-Mart argued that a traffic study only was “requested,” and that the State Highway Administration had refused to perform a traffic study.
The Coalition to Preserve Chestertown is willing to accept any discount store to fill Chestertown’s retail void, but it would prefer more of a mid-sized retailer rather than a megastore.
“We have something special here, we have something better than that, and we want to preserve what we have,” Horrocks said. “`Big’ is not the future. People have the right to say no, and that, I think, is the future.”
– 30 – CNS 9-15-99