Monday, July 09, 2012

The Big Box Bamboozle

On Tuesday morning, July 10, 2012 the citizens of Queen Anne’s County are going to be hoodwinked by three of their very own elected representatives. 

Last summer the commissioners passed ordinance 11-06 which eliminated the 65,000 square foot limitation on retail establishments built in the ‘suburban commercial’ zone. This amendment was aimed, none too subtly, at opening the county’s door to ‘big box’ development, or, less euphemistically, Wal-Mart and Home Depot style retail. Some applauded the decision, others decried the decision. One half of that equation, a group composed of concerned small business owners, farmland conservationists, community activists and just plain folks started a petition to put the ordinance on the November ballot. 

That ordinance 11-06 only eliminated the square footage limitation on suburban commercial sites, and that it was assumed there were only a handful of these sites in the entire county suitable for large retail development, didn’t slow the effort. Dozens of people set aside other priorities, and set out to gather signatures. There is nothing pleasant about going door to door, or standing out in front of a grocery store, but important issues always seem to motivate people. Thousands of signatures came in, a series of strict Board of Elections deadlines were met, and the issue of the 65,000 square foot building limitation in the suburban commercial zone is going to be on the ballot this November.

But this issue has never been about a change in the zoning regulations. It has never been about whether those few specific locations might be suitable for big box development or whether the county commissioners should even be considering what amounts to a personal and largely speculative appeal from a single landowner who stands to profit handsomely from the ordinance. No, this issue, this successful ballot initiative drive has only ever been about what the people of Queen Anne’s County want their future to look like.

In hindsight, it looks peculiarly like the targeted effort to remove the square foot limitation in suburban commercial was a move aimed at deception, a strategic diversion meant to occupy the opposition while the weapon of choice was prepared. That weapon, ordinance 12-11 is scheduled to be launched tomorrow morning from the second floor of the Liberty Building in Centreville.

12-11 would remove the 65,000 square foot limitation from town center and urban commercial sites; a far more sweeping change to the county’s zoning codes. Whereas the suburban commercial amendment would not have impacted Kent Island at all, 12-11 would open a wide swath of the island to big box development, essentially the entire route 50/18 corridor and the towns of Stevensville, Chester, and Grasonville.

It has become clear that the suburban commercial amendment was a Trojan horse, aimed at snaring those various opponents of large, Western Shore and Easton style development in a long, arduous, and time-consuming battle. The hope of Business Queen Anne’s, and Commissioners Arentz, Dumenil and Olds was that the effort required for an undertaking such as a ballot initiative would exhaust those “pesky no-growthers” that the special interest commissioners have come to abhor. The strategy was simply, lose the battle on suburban commercial, and win the war on 12-11. But the commissioners have probably underestimated the vigor with which the concerned citizens of the county will fight to protect their neighborhoods from Wal-Mart. And they are clearly up to the task.  

But it should not come to that, because the issue will settle itself this November. That vote, when it happens, will not be about zoning code minutiae, but rather will be on the much broader implications of adding more development to a Kent Island and Queen Anne’s County that many already consider overdeveloped. The county commissioners should not play this game of semantics on Tuesday by approving ordinance 12-11. They should not perform this end around on the comprehensive plan and on the people of Queen Anne’s County. The commissioners should not vote on 12-11 tomorrow, but instead dare to let the vote on November 6 stand as the people’s voice on this matter.         

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