The Calvert County Planning Commission has indefinitely postponed consideration of a proposed Wal-Mart in Dunkirk, giving the county commissioners time to tighten an apparent loophole in regulations on big-box retail stores.
The Wal-Mart proposal has encountered fierce opposition from some county officials and residents who assert that the world's largest retailer is trying to subvert the intent of regulations passed in August, which imposed a 75,000-square-feet limit on big-box stores built in minor town centers such as Dunkirk.
Developer Richard B. Kabat, left, with lawyer Mark Davis, said the Planning Commission is making up the rules as it goes along.
(Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
Wal-Mart officials said their Dunkirk plan meets those regulations because it technically is two stores -- a 74,998-square-foot main store with an adjacent 22,689-square-foot garden center. The combined 97,687-square-foot Wal-Mart site would be part of the Calvert Gateway complex being developed by Charlotte-based Faison Enterprises.
"The Planning Commission has delayed us again because they don't have the grounds to deny us," said Richard B. Kabat, Faison's managing director for mid-Atlantic states. "I've never seen such an egregious example of the rules being made up as they go along, and I've been in this business for 25 years."
Kabat said Faison and Wal-Mart are considering legal action to force the county to approve the development.
The Wal-Mart proposal was on the agenda for Wednesday night's Planning Commission meeting. About 50 members of Calvert Neighbors for Sensible Growth, a group opposed to the side-by-side Wal-Mart stores concept, displayed homemade signs at the session bearing messages such as "Rules are rules!!"
But the Planning Commission never discussed the Wal-Mart plan. It agreed to a request received that day from four of the five elected county commissioners, who wanted action on the Wal-Mart delayed so they could "evaluate county options."
The Board of County Commissioners "is not aware as to whether or not [the proposed Wal-Mart] meets the letter of the law," the letter said, "but is certain that it does not meet the intent of the law." The letter noted that it did not represent the view of commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings), who voted against the big-box regulations.
Commissioner Susan Shaw (R-Huntingtown) said she is not convinced that additional regulations are needed to prevent Wal-Mart from building side-by-side stores. She said the intent of the law is clear: to stop big-box stores from exceeding 75,000 square feet in minor town centers.
But, she said, "if we didn't accomplish that, then we need to correct the error."
Kabat said the county does not have the legal authority to pass regulations barring a company from owning side-by-side stores. He said the intent of the big-box rules was not to limit businesses to 75,000 square feet, but to prevent enormous commercial buildings.
At Wednesday's meeting, Planning Commission member Grace Mary Brady said the county commissioners had been told that the big-box regulations allowed for side-by-side stores. "They adopted these regulations knowing that some of these loopholes existed," she said.
During the debate last summer over the big-box rules, Commissioner Wilson H. Parran (D-At Large) said, "You may limit the size of the big box . . . but you may end up getting two big boxes."
Greg Bowen, the county's director of planning, said he and the county attorney are researching the legal status of the county's big-box regulations and possible changes to any potential loopholes. He said their findings will be presented to the commissioners in the coming weeks.