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Maryland Politics
Posted at 03:05 PM ET, 01/31/2012

Montgomery legislators propose alternative big-box bills

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday introduced three alternatives to a politically unsavory bill introduced by council member Valerie Ervin and aimed at limiting the expansion of Wal-Mart in the county.

None of the bills references the super-retailer. But one measure would affect a proposed Wal-Mart on Rockville Pike by placing restrictions on the building’s design. Another bill would require smaller big-box stores to undergo the same extra scrutiny as the larger ones. And a third would set wage and health insurance standards for stores using county funds.

Council officials say the new bills are complementary, and some say the measures replace a bill proposed by Ervin (D-Silver Spring) three months ago that would require big-box stores with more than 75,000 square feet to sign, or make a good-faith effort to complete, community benefits agreements with community groups.

That bill was sponsored by a majority of the County Council when it was introduced but it lost support after the business and developer communities attacked it, the county attorney called it unconstitutional and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) threatened to veto it in its current form.

Ervin’s bill “is, you know, long gone,” said council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who is sponsoring one of the new bills. “This package addresses big-box problems that arise from big-box retailers. ... This, I think, is a more prudent approach.”

Leggett declined to comment on the bills, saying he is still looking at the language. He said he wants to be careful about sending the wrong message to the business community.

“Are we doing something so outside of the norm that it’s not conducive for business?” he said. “I’m concerned about that.”

Ervin introduced one of the new bills, proposing to expand big-box regulation that was approved in 2004. Under current law, stores that are at least 120,000 square feet need extra scrutiny from the county before they are approved. Ervin’s bill would require all stores more than 50,000 square feet to go through the same process, which can control such things as hours of operation, lighting and noise.

Ervin said her new proposal reflected community responses to the previous bill. She said she still wants her first bill to pass, but she is also collecting more data on how such public-benefit contracts work in other places.

“I have not given up hope on [the earlier bill], but I think in the mean time, my [new bill] fits very well with council member Berliner’s [bill],” she said.

Council President Roger Berliner (B-Potomac-Bethesda) said he aimed his bill.at a proposal by Chevy Chase-based JBG Rosenfeld to build a Wal-Mart along Rockville Pike. Local business owners have decried the plan, saying it would drive away small businesses and increase traffic, but the county cannot block the proposal because of zoning rules.

Berliner’s bill would restrict the street designs of the Rockville Pike store and a handful of other retail properties, generally requiring street-level space for small businesses. The measure would also offer an incentive for creating a mixed-use development, allowing developers to build up to 75 feet if they do.

Berliner, who said he is “agnostic” to Wal-Mart’s expansion in Montgomery, said that he has been talking with JBG Rosenfeld over the proposal. He said Friday that the company presented him with rough schematics for a design that generally follows his proposed regulations.

Krista C. DiIaconi, a principal at JBG Rosenfeld, said neither her company nor Wal-Mart has approved the schematics but that a design consistent with Berliner’s bill is “achievable.” The Rockville store was originally set to open by early 2014, but DiIaconi said the timeline has been delayed because of expected changes.

Riemer’s bill would affect large retail stores built using county economic development funds. Stores supported by more than $100,000 of those funds would have to provide their workers with a living wage and with health insurance “reasonably comparable” to plans used by county employees. The same standard could also apply to stores in blighted areas.

Riemer said his proposal came out of a debate over Ervin’s initial bill. “I was asking myself what are the critical issues that are at stake for the county government,” he said, “and one of them is not subsidizing bad job creation, not subsidizing low quality jobs.”

Wal-Mart and its partnering developers are waging an aggressive campaign to woo the region’s shoppers. The company is trying to expand its presence in Montgomery, including Aspen Hill, and to Tysons Corner, Oxon Hill, and the District.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo did not respond to requests for comment late last week and on Tuesday.

After years of prosperity, Montgomery has had to face a tougher economic and political reality in the wake of the recession. Changing demographics and a crimp on consumers’ wallets has made some county residents more receptive to the cheaper goods offered by Wal-Mart.

By  |  03:05 PM ET, 01/31/2012

 
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