Montgomery County yesterday joined a growing list of jurisdictions around the country that have imposed tougher zoning restrictions on big-box retailers, marking a victory for unions and Giant Food LLC, which joined forces to lobby for the restrictions.
The council voted, 7 to 0, to adopt zoning rules that allow retailers to open so-called "combination retail stores" -- discount stores of at least 120,000 square feet with a full-service grocery and pharmacy -- only in specific commercial zones and then, only with a special permit.
The zoning rules essentially subject some big-box stores to an additional layer of review by county officials and provide another opportunity for public input.
While the amendment passed yesterday does not name specific retailers, in practice, it would affect only Wal-Mart Supercenters, SuperTargets, and the supermarket chain Wegmans. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has 10 stores in the Washington metropolitan area, including one in Germantown, as well as three Supercenters, including one in Hagerstown. The only SuperTarget in the area is in Leesburg. Wegmans has a store in Sterling.
Before the vote, a couple of council members cited Wal-Mart by name. George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said he decided to support the bill after meeting with a local hardware store owner who begged him to keep Wal-Mart out of Montgomery County.
Wal-Mart officials complained that the new zoning restrictions are "anti-consumer" and unfairly single out the Bentonville, Ark., retailer. "It's disappointing that the council would choose a definition that is essentially a Wal-Mart Supercenter," said spokeswoman Mia T. Masten.
Wal-Mart lobbyists were relieved, however, that the zoning restrictions fall short of a ban, such as the one recently adopted by Calvert County. That county caps retail store size at 125,000 square feet -- about twice the size of a normal grocery store.
"As long as the special exception process is objective and looks at an application on its merits . . . we can work with that," Masten said.
The new rules will have "no impact" on the company's decision to expand in Montgomery County in the future, though Wal-Mart has no immediate plans to build or expand an existing store there, Masten said.
She added that the company has not necessarily ruled out Montgomery County, as well as the District, as potential markets.
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.
"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."