Proposed regulations that would limit the size of future "big-box" retail stores in Calvert County have ignited a public debate about curbing growth in the rapidly growing jurisdiction.
Many of the more than 60 people who spoke at a public hearing last week at Calvert High School supported the limits, which would have an immediate impact on a proposed expansion of the Wal-Mart in Prince Frederick. The regulations have been in the drafting and review process for a year.
Big-box retailers could squeeze small businesses out of the Calvert economy, supporters of the rules told the Board of Commissioners and the Planning Commission at the Tuesday night session. The large, free-standing stores also generate additional traffic on clogged roads and further erode the county's rural character, several speakers said.
"The larger they get, the quicker you lose your rural setting," said Richard Packard of Sunderland.
But the big retailers were not without their defenders. Opponents of the proposed regulations said that Calvert needs the economic boost of big-box stores and that residents deserve to have the retail outlets conveniently located so they do not have to drive to neighboring counties to shop.
"Calvert County needs stores, convenient living . . . we need big-box stores," said Charlotte Ersoy of Prince Frederick.
Officials still have not decided what size limit they would place on such stores if the regulations are adopted. The proposal considered at the hearing contains a range of potential size limits. The big-box stores could be limited to 150,000 square feet, though the commissioners have the option of reducing the maximum size even further, at increments down to 75,000 square feet.
The commissioners will wait for further recommendations from the Planning Commission before acting on the legislation. Because public comment on the regulations will be accepted by the county through July 27, the earliest the Planning Commission could discus the regulations would be at its meeting scheduled for the next night, said Greg Bowen, the county's deputy planning director.
The Prince Frederick Wal-Mart, which contains 91,424 square feet, is seeking permission from the Planning Commission to build a 109,598-square-foot addition. If the commissioners adopt the proposed big-box regulations, the expansion would have to be scaled back.
Also under consideration by the commissioners is a separate proposal by a developer to build a Wal-Mart in Dunkirk. The county has been pursuing an agreement with the developer that would exempt the roughly 144,000-square-foot store from the big-box regulations if the builder makes road improvements in the area. The Planning Commission would still have to sign off on such an agreement and make a determination that it is consistent with the county's comprehensive plan and town center master plans.
Mia Masten, a community affairs manager representing Wal-Mart at Tuesday's hearing, told the commissioners and Planning Commission members that the retail chain opposes the proposed regulations.
"This is more than a Wal-Mart issue," Masten said. "It's about freedom to choose where you shop."
Wal-Mart was not alone in opposing the regulations. Michael Benton, chairman of the county's Economic Development Commission, also spoke out against the proposal.
"This is not an issue about Wal-Mart. . . . This is about big boxes and the development of our economy in Calvert," Benton said.
On Friday a group of county residents announced that they had formed Calvert County Citizens for Consumer Choice, a group opposed to any size limits on the large stores.
The announcement also said the organization supports the Wal-Mart expansion in Prince Frederick and the new store in Dunkirk.
"The opposition says to 'Keep Calvert Country,' " Marciane Fossett of Owings said in the group's statement, referring to those who want to block the big-box stores. "But it stopped being that way a long time ago, and we need to keep residential growth intact -- not worry about limiting retail choices to the residents who live here."
The move to limit the size of the big retail stores originally stemmed primarily from a concern about additional traffic the stores would probably generate on congested roads. As the debate has continued, supporters of the regulations have said they also are needed in a county that is struggling to cap growth.
"If you want to live in a rural county, you have to be willing to trade some conveniences," said Barbara Burnett of Prince Frederick.
Last week's public hearing came a little more than a year after the commissioners first asked the Planning Commission to expedite the drafting of limits on the size, design and location of big-box stores. At the time, the county commissioners said they wanted planners to greenlight work on the rules in part because there were a number of pending proposals for big-box type commercial developments.
The Planning Commission has recommended that sites for big-box stores be restricted to parts of Dunkirk, Prince Frederick, Lusby and Solomons. Still to be decided is the impact of such regulations on how other stores could be connected or built next to the large retail stores.
Another issue to be considered is whether developers of the big-box stores should have to pay an excise tax, designed to help the county cover the costs of road improvements needed to accommodate additional traffic generated by the commercial developments.