The Prince George's County Council is considering legislation that would prohibit "big box" stores such as Price Club or Sam's Club from locating in small neighborhood shopping centers.

The measure, which has been approved by the council's Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee, would restrict such stores to regional commercial centers in the county. The bill would allow box stores to locate in areas designated for revitalization.

Council member Audrey E. Scott (R-Bowie), a co-sponsor of the bill, said she is concerned that such large warehouse stores would overwhelm some of the smaller shopping centers in the county.

She said she has seen an increase in box stores locating in the county, a development she does not oppose.

"There is an appropriate role for big boxes," she said. "They are regional stores. This is an attempt to protect the neighborhood shopping centers and the neighborhood atmosphere." The stores would not be allowed in shopping centers of less than 30 acres.

Other sponsors of the measure include Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville), Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville) and Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood).

County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) has not taken a position on the legislation.

Bob Zinsmeister, vice president of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce, said his group opposes the legislation.

"We just thought it was a bit too much, especially at a time when we are trying to get retail into the county," he said. "Some people may say this isn't specifically what we are targeting, but it sends that message, 'Well, here they go again trying to be restrictive.' These kinds of facilities are in demand as well."

The legislation is scheduled for a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. July 27.

Election Sniping

Hendershot angered county and state Republicans last week when he proposed changes to the election laws, saying he "happens to be a very partisan Democrat, and I don't think it's a good idea that we facilitate Republicans" to win elections.

Hendershot, the only council member to win office in a special election, has proposed a bill requiring both a primary and general election to fill a seat vacated by a departing member. County law requires one election.

Hendershot said the change was necessary because "the current setup gives [Republicans] the opportunity" to win.

Hendershot faced candidates from both parties in 1997 in a crowded contest between four Democrats and two Republicans vying for a seat left vacant when Anne T. MacKinnon resigned to become executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. Hendershot won by 226 votes over his closest opponent, Republican John F. Anders.

But county and state Republican leaders denounced the legislation, which the council is reviewing. No date for a vote has been set.

"Mr. Hendershot finally let the cat out of the bag that he's more concerned with politics than good government," said Paul D. Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.

Ellington said he does not oppose the legislation, but the politics behind it.

"I support free and open elections, and I want the best qualified person to be elected," he said.

Michael Steele, chairman of the county's Republican Party, said Hendershot should resign.

"He's a joke. His bill is a joke, and I'd tell him to his face," Steele said. "It just shows the arrogance of power, and it's a red flag to the people of this county that he is not a public servant. He's a politician."

Steele warned other council members that the Republicans will target their seats in the next election if they vote in favor of the measure. (Seven of the nine members will have to leave anyway in 2002 when term limitations will force them out. Hendershot and Shapiro, who was elected in the fall, are the only two who can run for reelection.)

"Hendershot's days will be numbered," Steele said. "We will do everything we can to turn him out in the next election. You don't bring partisanship to public legislation."

County Elections Administrator Robert J. Antonetti estimated the cost of a special primary election to be $75,000 to $90,000, depending on the council district, according to a report filed with the council.

Other council members said they supported the legislation because voters complained that the special election in which Hendershot participated had been confusing.

Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro) said council members would consider the legislation on its merits and not for partisan reasons.

He said he supports the legislation because it will strengthen political parties, which encourages people to get involved in the process.

"I do agree with the legislation," Estepp said. "I think it's what the people of the county want to see."