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Montgomery Adopts New Zoning Rules

Wal-Mart in recent years has been expanding into urban areas and experimenting with different urban formats. Among its growth strategies is converting existing Wal-Mart stores into Supercenters by adding a grocery component. Any expansion of the Wal-Mart in Germantown, however, would trigger the new zoning requirements, said council president Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large).

The County Council yesterday adopted the proposal forwarded to it in February by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), with two minor amendments. It also voted down two proposals that would have affected more retailers. The first, offered by Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Eastern County), would have imposed a six-month moratorium on all big-box retail in the county while the county reviewed the matter further. The second proposal, introduced by Silverman in September, would have required a special permit for free-standing stores of at least 130,000 square feet, except for club membership and home improvement stores.

Councilman George L. Leventhal said a store owner asked him to support the tougher restrictions.

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"Montgomery County today took another step forward in its long fight to reduce sprawl and encourage smart growth development," Duncan said in a prepared statement.

Duncan lobbied members to vote for his proposal, his spokesman, David Weaver, said. He had help from Giant Food, which sent letters to the council supporting the proposed restrictions. Officials of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, meanwhile, organized labor, education and women's rights advocates to testify with them in front of the council in October.

Costco Wholesale Corp. hired prominent local land-use attorneys who successfully argued that it should be exempted from the restrictions. Home Depot Inc. organized a last-minute e-mail campaign by its store managers urging council members to exempt home-improvement stores. They are exempt because they don't have grocery stores.

In other locations, Wal-Mart has deployed an aggressive counter-offensive, using public referendums, launching court challenges, and even establishing pro-Wal-Mart civic organizations to combat what it perceives as anti-Wal-Mart bills.

Its response here was more low-keyed. Wal-Mart in July sent council members a copy of a telephone poll of 500 county residents. Fifty percent of respondents said they opposed zoning rules designed to stop a Wal-Mart Supercenter from opening.

Two Wal-Mart representatives followed up in person with Silverman. Wal-Mart officials also set up a table at the Wal-Mart store in Germantown to collect signatures for a petition opposing the zoning restrictions. The petition, with more than 15,000 signatures, was turned over to the council last month.

"Wal-Mart is my favorite store," said Tracy Simmons, a customer who signed the petition. "[The County Council] needs to leave it alone."

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