Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), Montgomery County Council president, yesterday introduced a proposal to require a special permit for free-standing discount stores larger than 120,000 square feet, except for club membership stores such as Costco and Sam's Club, and home improvement stores such as Home Depot.
Silverman's proposal is the second piece of legislation the County Council is considering that, if passed, could affect future growth of Wal-Mart, Target and Wegmans grocery stores in the county.
None of the three retailers has immediate plans to expand in Montgomery. But Silverman's proposal comes as a relief to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. officials who said they prefer it to one being pushed by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). Wal-Mart executives say Duncan's measure more specifically targets their superstores -- 100,000-square-foot-plus stores that also sell groceries. Duncan's definition would, however, cover other stores with a large enough grocery component, such as Wegmans or SuperTarget.
Mia T. Masten, Wal-Mart regional community affairs manager, called Silverman's bill "fairer" than Duncan's.
"Our biggest concern is that the special exemption be based on the merits of individual projects," she said. "As long as the special exemption process is fair, it's something we'll work with."
Duncan's proposal, introduced in February, would require a special permit for stores larger than 120,000 square feet that devote at least 10 percent of their floor space to food, beverage or prescription drug sales. Duncan's proposal would exempt membership clubs but not home improvement stores.
The county executive argues that the public needs greater input over so-called combination retail stores because they generate more traffic than other big-box outlets.
Duncan's proposal has the support of Giant Food Inc., Safeway Inc. and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has contracts with those chains and has criticized Wal-Mart's use of nonunion labor. Giant spokesman Barry F. Scher said his company supports Silverman's bill, too.
C. James Lowthers, president of UFCW Local 400, did not return calls seeking comment.
Silverman said he wanted to broaden the scope of Duncan's proposal because traffic data did not support the county executive's conclusion that discount stores with a grocery component generate more traffic than big stores that don't sell groceries.
"I did not believe the proposal sent over by the county executive could pass legal muster," Silverman said. "We have no traffic data that allows us to distinguish between a Kohl's and a Target and a Wal-Mart."
Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) said she plans to introduce an amendment to Silverman's bill that would target all stores greater than 130,000 square feet.
The council has scheduled an Oct. 19 public hearing on Silverman's proposal.