People filled the room for the St. Mary's County Planning Commission meeting Monday evening and stood in the hallways outside to watch the activities on television monitors. A county secretary asked who would like to speak to the commission, and dozens of people signed up to express their views about Wal-Mart stores.
But it wasn't a public hearing on Wal-Mart. So, despite the crowds there to support the retailer and those wearing anti-Wal-Mart stickers, the planning commission members had their pending questions answered and voted to approve the expansion of the Wal-Mart store in California. Just like that.
In the hall, people gasped.
Supporters cheered. Opponents booed.
Someone yelled out to the commission members, "It says on the agenda 'public hearing.' "
Chairman John Taylor Sr. replied, "It doesn't say it on mine."
Someone else asked, "Why are we here?"
In fact there was a public hearing on another issue -- not Wal-Mart.
Taylor told the crowd that the commission had continued a meeting that started June 14, that public comments had been taken then, and that Monday's discussion was intended only to clarify some issues before making a decision.
People rolled their eyes and complained. But the vote, with six members in favor and just one, Julia King, opposed, was already over. The commission approved the proposal to expand the store on Route 235, nearly doubling its size and adding a grocery store.
"We were going to have a donnybrook there," Taylor said. "There was emotion on both sides."
Supporters said the store has the best prices in the area and provides good jobs. Opponents, including Nancy Bupp, who carried a sign mocking Wal-Mart's low-prices slogan ("Always lower wages," it read. "Always."), said the company doesn't treat its employees well and drives local stores out of business.
Those views reflected the testimony the commission had heard at the earlier meeting, but Taylor said such points were not relevant to the issue on the table. "They were saying Wal-Mart is an unfair employer -- that's not a planning matter. They need to go to county commissioners."
Earlier this month, commissioners in Calvert County voted to limit the size of "big-box" retail stores, hindering plans to build a Wal-Mart in Dunkirk and to expand the store in Prince Frederick. A Wal-Mart representative said this week that the firm is still considering expanding the Prince Frederick store.
The company plans to expand its California store from 116,000 square feet to 206,000 square feet. Wal-Mart also would double the number of people employed at the St. Mary's County location to 400.
Despite the strong reaction Wal-Mart has generated on both sides, Taylor said, the issue before the Planning Commission was straightforward. Members had questions about utilities, about traffic and about how it might affect a future hiking trail. "All the questions to land use were answered," he said. "When all the questions are answered, it's a no-brainer."
Traffic congestion around an expanded store was the biggest concern of Planning Commission members. "Some intersections are already failing" at the busiest times of day, Taylor said, according to studies of the area. But even with Wal-Mart's offer to add an access road to the nearby Kmart and lengthen turn lanes, the surrounding intersections would still be failing, he said, "but they wouldn't be failing as badly."
Many of those who waited to speak Monday night wanted to talk about traffic. Laura Stewart, who lives about a quarter of a mile from the store, said lines of cars back up on Route 235. "You can sit at the intersection 10 or 15 minutes," as it is now, she said, adding that a bigger store would just make things worse.
The county is planning to build a trail for hikers and bicyclists, starting in the northern end of the county and eventually working its way down to the Lexington Park area, said Phil Rollins, director of the county Recreation and Parks Department. Wal-Mart has offered to build the section of trail that would run along its property.
"I'm still confused, with the amount of traffic you're going to have, how you're going to have a happy biker and a Rollerblader," said Joe St. Clair, a member of the commission. "There's a Wendy's, an intersection, three more lanes." On a big map propped up for the commission, St. Clair counted streets. "There are seven roads to jump. Maybe skateboarders could do it. "
People laughed. Rollins said the trail would have been easier to build 15 years ago, but now there are people who would want to commute to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station by bike or by foot and would use the path.
"I agree it's going to be a challenge," he said.
King said later that she had concerns about big grocery stores that have closed in the area, traffic congestion and questions about Wal-Mart's business practices. The issue is very complicated, she said. "It kept me awake a lot, thinking."
After the vote Monday night, long after the planning commission went on to other issues, people were still milling around the halls and the dark parking lots, still talking about Wal-Mart.