People filled the room for the St. Mary's County Planning Commission meeting Monday evening and stood in the hallways outside to watch the activities on television monitors. A county secretary asked who would like to speak to the commission, and dozens of people signed up to express their views about Wal-Mart stores.
But it wasn't a public hearing on Wal-Mart. So, despite the crowds there to support the retailer and those wearing anti-Wal-Mart stickers, the planning commission members had their pending questions answered and voted to approve the expansion of the Wal-Mart store in California. Just like that.
Sally Lounsbury loads her Wal-Mart purchases in Calvert County with store employee Brian Williams. St. Mary's County has approved a store expansion.
(Matt Houston -- AP)
In the hall, people gasped.
Supporters cheered. Opponents booed.
Someone yelled out to the commission members, "It says on the agenda 'public hearing.' "
Chairman John Taylor Sr. replied, "It doesn't say it on mine."
Someone else asked, "Why are we here?"
In fact there was a public hearing on another issue -- not Wal-Mart.
Taylor told the crowd that the commission had continued a meeting that started June 14, that public comments had been taken then, and that Monday's discussion was intended only to clarify some issues before making a decision.
People rolled their eyes and complained. But the vote, with six members in favor and just one, Julia King, opposed, was already over. The commission approved the proposal to expand the store on Route 235, nearly doubling its size and adding a grocery store.
"We were going to have a donnybrook there," Taylor said. "There was emotion on both sides."
Supporters said the store has the best prices in the area and provides good jobs. Opponents, including Nancy Bupp, who carried a sign mocking Wal-Mart's low-prices slogan ("Always lower wages," it read. "Always."), said the company doesn't treat its employees well and drives local stores out of business.
Those views reflected the testimony the commission had heard at the earlier meeting, but Taylor said such points were not relevant to the issue on the table. "They were saying Wal-Mart is an unfair employer -- that's not a planning matter. They need to go to county commissioners."
Earlier this month, commissioners in Calvert County voted to limit the size of "big-box" retail stores, hindering plans to build a Wal-Mart in Dunkirk and to expand the store in Prince Frederick. A Wal-Mart representative said this week that the firm is still considering expanding the Prince Frederick store.