Montgomery big-box bill is unconstitutional, county attorney says

November 28, 2011

The top attorney for the Montgomery County government said Monday that a bill proposing limits on big-box stores is unconstitutional.

Issued by County Attorney Marc Hansen, the opinion is likely to stir more debate over the big-box legislation, which was introduced as Wal-Mart was rolling out plans for a significant expansion in Montgomery.

Under the law, all large big-box stores, including Wal-Mart, would be required to meet with community groups and try to negotiate agreements on subjects such as wages, benefits and environmental issues.

Since it was introduced by County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), the legislation has drawn the ire of big businesses and chambers of commerce, which say that the bill unnecessarily complicates the zoning process. But it also drew support from labor leaders and small-business owners, who say the bill could protect small businesses.

Some legal experts say Han­sen’s opinion is not definitive. The bill “is not obviously unconstitutional,” said Mark Graber of the University of Maryland.

Whatever its constitutional merits, the bill has a number of opponents in the county government. Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) wants to defeat the legislation. Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said he finds it deeply flawed. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said he would veto it as currently written.

Ervin, who introduced it on behalf of longtime Wal-Mart foe United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400, has repeatedly said that no matter what the final version might be, she wants to preserve the thrust of the original legislation: negotiations between retailers and civic organizations that lead to legally binding “community benefits agreements.”

In his opinion, Hansen, a Leggett appointee, suggests that the negotiations make the bill unconstitutional. He writes that the bill might illegally overburden big-box retailers and illegally grant private entities the power of determining the community’s best interest. Council members cannot address either concern, he continued, without “changing the fundamental nature” of the bill.

But Graber said bill supporters can argue that big boxes have “serious” social and economic effects on the community that warrant a sort of quid pro quo. He added that the counterargument — that zoning processes should deal with physical effects such as traffic and parking, not community effects — is also strong.

Ervin could not be reached for comment Monday. Mike Faden, a senior legal aide for the County Council, says the bill requires only that the retailer tries in good faith to reach an agreement. Because the agreements aren’t mandatory, the constitutional issues do not apply, he said.

Council members are considering amendments and alternatives to the bill, such as strengthening a 2004 big-box law. County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Leggett is open to changes but said they must address questions raised by Hansen.

The legislation comes as Wal-Mart moves forward with plans to open more stores in the region. In addition to Aspen Hill and Rockville Pike, the retailer has plans for stores in the District, Tysons Corner, Oxon Hill and possibly Shirlington.

In the District, the chain agreed to a “community partnership initiative” with city officials, funding job-training programs and pledging to seek local small- and minority-owned businesses for store construction. The agreement did not involve labor groups or civic organizations.

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