Amid charges of "damn foolishness" and "irresponsibility and arrogance" aimed at the New Carrollton City Council, the residents of that Maryland municipality will decide in a special election on Monday whether to support an expansion of a Safeway food store in their area.
At issue is a hotly debated decision made by the City Council in April to approve a special exception request. The special exception would permit Safeway to expand an existing store at 8484 Annapolis Rd. without adding any new parking spaces to the surrounding shopping center.
Residents of nearby Longfellow Street, which abuts the shopping center, presented a petition to the City Council on April 19, requesting that the question of city endorsement of [WORD ILLEGIBLE]Safeway proposal be placed on the [WORD ILLEGIBLE]in a special referendum.
The council, however, ignored the petition's intent to get a majority of the voters opinion on the Safeway issue before any action on a city level was taken and voted, 3 to 2, to support Safeway's application.
Despite letters from four former city officials urging "an end" to the "damn foolishness" and the petition signed by more than 100 citizens, Mayor Jordan Harding signed the endorsement a week later.
Former city Mayor Member Roger Williams said the action was "a denial of the very spirit of the (city) charter" and called it "an error in judgment."
So what started out as a simple zoning question has become, in the eyes of Edna Alsop, an organizer of the referendum drive, "a question of representation by our government. This is now moving into the direction of their (the City Council's) governing ability. One would suppose they are there to act on their citizens' wishes," Alsop said.
Alsop originally opposed the Safeway expansion because it "would aggravate the traffic problem already existing at Route 450 (Annapolis Road) and 85th Street.
"Just last year Harding announced that the fire marshall could not get in and out of New Carrollton because of the traffic. Now we will have even more big Safeway trucks and smaller intermediate trucks in the Safeway area."
Alsop also said that an expanded Safeway would bring new customers into the shopping center without adequate parking facilities.
According to the county code, any substantial additions to an existing commercial building must include additional parking spaces. The land surrounding the Annapolis Road Safeway is not large enough for both the expansion and new parking spaces, according to Safeway attorney Robert Manzi, so Safeway apolied to the County Council for a special exception to the code to let the company forgo the required addition of 81 spaces.
When zoning questions involve municipalities such as the one in New Carrollton, the city has the right to express an opinion to the County Council, which will make the final decision.
City Administrator John Brunner said the new expansion would only create a traffic increase of less than one percent. "That's 80 more cars in a peak hour, really minuscule. The expansion of the store would actually prompt people to stay off Annapolis Road because (people) could buy all their goods in one space."
City Council members said the expanded Safeway would also enhance the stability of the shopping center. Last year a nearby Super Giant closed and officials say they fear that if Safeway is not allowed to expand, it, too, would close.
Manzi said Safeway officials would "try not to threaten the citizens by saying the store would close. As of now, they are saying the store will stay open. It is a good store for them, but too small."
Alsop said that city officials are telling New Carrollton residents that Safeway will close the store. "They keep making these editorial comments that are not based on fact," Alsop said.
The City Council, in fact, has added "an advisory question" of its own to Monday's ballot.Placed on the ballot to the left of the referendum question is an explanation of the council decision to support the special exemption, including a contract it made with Safeway for noise and visual buffers for the area.
"That's like putting one candidate's list of qualifications up against another candidate's name," said one resident, who asked not to be identified. "It just isn't fair and it sure is confusing."
While no great campaign slogans and signs supporting or opposing the referendum have been erected, Alsop said she is "hopeful the citizens of New Carrollton understand what they're voting for."
"After all," she said, "we're getting into the fact that our democratic rights as citizens are involved."