MARYLAND

Court to Rule on Chestertown Wal-Mart

After nearly seven years, the long-running battle to keep big-box discounter Wal-Mart out of the environs of tiny, tony Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore may be entering its final phase, or perhaps not.

County officials approved the project in 1996, but some citizens of the Kent County seat of 3,700 challenged it in court. Last December, the case was argued before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

A ruling is expected soon. Any decision, however, could wind up before the Maryland Court of Appeals.

"Clearly, this is kind of like the granddaddy of superstore battles," said Al Norman, a Greenfield, Mass., an opponent who maintains an anti-sprawl Web site where he tracks disputes involving superstores.

Wal-Mart's plans to build just beyond the Chestertown limits became public in November 1992. The company bought the site for a 107,000-square-foot store for $1.4 million in 1995. But the tract remains undeveloped.

Opponents quickly mobilized as the Coalition to Preserve Chestertown, gaining as allies The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Baltimore-based Preservation Maryland. It has since modified its stance slightly, saying a 50,000-square-foot store would be okay. But Wal-Mart has said no deal.

"Certainly, there's been a vocal minority that says they don't want it for various reasons," said Wal-Mart spokesman Keith Morris. "At this point, we remain committed to the market. It seems that a great majority view it as an economic boon to the area."

Vera Hawkins, 60, of the bay community of Rock Hall, is among those supporting the superstore: "I made up my mind, if Wal-Mart doesn't have it, I don't need it. That's how much I like Wal-Mart."

Shoppers now drive to Elkton, Easton or even Dover, Del., to find a selection unavailable closer to home. That doesn't particularly bother business owners and civic leaders in Chestertown, with its upscale shops and restaurants relying largely on heritage tourism.

"All our shops are full," said Mayor Margo G. Bailey, who works in a bookstore in town, "and last year we expanded our commercial downtown district by a block.

"We're adding to the retail depth we need, but we're doing it our way, and with what fits our community," said Bailey. Of Wal-Mart she said: "We live here. They don't live here."

THE DISTRICT

GOP Medicare Ad Dispute Goes to Judge

No winner has yet been declared in the Republican National Committee's million-dollar Medicare challenge, a 1995 political stratagem that has become a million-dollar headache for the GOP and its legal staff.

A federal lawsuit is very much alive, stemming from former Republican chairman Haley Barbour's offer to pay $1 million to the first American who could prove wrong his statement that the 1995 budget bill would increase Medicare spending by 50 percent.

At least 80 people mailed or faxed their reasoning in an effort to claim the cash. The RNC sued them all, asking a judge to settle the dispute and order the entrants to pay the party's legal costs.

Nearly four years and many volumes of courthouse pleadings later, Senior U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn is reviewing a Republican request to declare a GOP victory.

Briefs by RNC lawyer Thomas W. Kirby seek to refute claims by about a dozen entrants, including Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Gene Taylor (R-Miss.). Kirby contends that all arguments--semantic and economic--fall short of proving Barbour wrong.

Kirby said the offer was not a contest at all. Rather, he wrote, it was a "parody," and he referred to "the alleged $1 million prize."

"The form did not say, 'Here Is How You Can Win.' Instead, it stated in bold capital letters, HERE IS WHY YOU HAVE NO CHANCE FOR THE MILLION DOLLARS," Kirby wrote. "The point was to make people focus on the undisputed facts, not to run a contest."

Plenty about the full-page advertisements in USA Today and Roll Call looked like a contest. There was Barbour with an oversize check for $1 million. A note set a deadline for entries.

The winner had to refute this assertion: "In November 1995, the U.S. House and Senate passed a balanced budget bill. It increases total federal spending on Medicare by more than 50% from 1995 to 2002."

Indeed, Congressional Budget Office numbers showed that Medicare spending would rise from $178 billion in 1995 to $289 billion in 2002, a 62 percent increase.

Yet if there were no 1995 budget bill, the increase would have been greater, prompting at least two entrants to argue the bill had the effect of decreasing spending. Others argued that Barbour's statement was false because the 1995 bill would not have yielded a balanced budget at all.

Chevy Chase lawyer Michael Callahan, who represents entrant Dorian DeWind, argued that the GOP challenge was a contest and that the Republicans "got what they bargained for, wide exposure of their position on this issue during the campaign. It is time for plaintiffs to pay what they offered."