UPPER MARLBORO – Citizens rallying outside the County Administration Building Monday shouted “Prince George’s Deserves Better,” but they don’t feel they received it. A variety of community groups and advocacy organizations came together on July 18 to protest the proposed expansion of the Wal-Mart at Woodyard Crossing Shopping Center in Clinton before the District Council’s […]
UPPER MARLBORO – Citizens rallying outside the County Administration Building Monday shouted “Prince George’s Deserves Better,” but they don’t feel they received it.
A variety of community groups and advocacy organizations came together on July 18 to protest the proposed expansion of the Wal-Mart at Woodyard Crossing Shopping Center in Clinton before the District Council’s hearing and vote on the matter. Despite of their presence, the council voted 8-0 to overturn the planning board and the Zoning Hearing Examiner’s decisions to deny the company’s request. As a result of the vote, the Wal-Mart will be allowed to expand to an additional half acre of land and add approximately 37,000 square feet to the store.
Jennifer Dwyer, a county organizer with Progressive Maryland, was vocal in expressing her displeasure in the wake of the vote.
“The Zoning Hearing Examiner and the People’s Zoning Counsel both clearly laid out that there is absolutely no legal justification to allow this Wal-Mart expansion to go forward,” she said.
Both had argued the Wal-Mart plan did not meet the legal criteria for a special exception, including obtaining a variance for being within the legal 100-foot setback. The variance was not granted because Wal-Mart voluntarily chose to connect the proposed new construction to the existing structure, which is inside that setback, when it could have included space between them and not needed the variance to proceed.
On the other side, the attorney for Wal-Mart, Andre Gingles, said the existing conditions at the shopping center – being “pinched” by wetlands areas and residential neighborhoods, as well as the current layout of the property – create undue hardship for Wal-Mart in its efforts to expand, justifying the variance.
Councilman Mel Franklin, who represents Clinton and the rest of District 9, agreed the shopping center’s layout created the problems. He said the shopping center was an important economic engine in the area, and an expanded Wal-Mart would help that role increase.
“This is an existing shopping center. Clinton, in general, has challenges with the quality of its commercial opportunities. There’s a big need for investment and redevelopment and renovation in Clinton,” he said. “It certainly has importance in the community. This shopping center in particular needs to thrive.”
The council did specify that the official documentation declaring the decision overturned would include conditions. While the text of the document was not available as of press time, one or more of the conditions attached to the decision to allow the expansion could be to improve the façade of the existing building, based on Franklin’s comments.
“The existing building has some age on it,” he said. “That is definitely a concern about the property as it stands right now, the perception of it not being a great-looking store, to put it bluntly.”
Dwyer blasted Franklin and his decision.
“Mel Franklin just said aesthetics matter more than the law, matter more than what his constituents want,” she said.
Aesthetics weren’t the only concerns expressed by the citizens. Protesters said the existing Wal-Mart has contributed negatively to their neighborhood.
“Since the shopping center has expanded, we’ve had nothing but a bunch of break-ins at our homes, and flooding problems throughout the neighborhood with the water backing up back into our ditch lines,” said Donald Hancock, a Clinton resident.
He also complained of the noise made by trucks as they load and unload merchandise on the service road behind Wal-Mart and the other stores.
Gingles argued the county’s Department of Permitting, Inspection and Enforcement approved the stormwater management concept plan for the site and “found no issue with regard to the stormwater management flow across the site or to adjacent properties.”
But Councilman Todd Turner said even if the runoff isn’t proven to be Wal-Mart’s fault, it would be nice for the store to try to help the community handle it.
“I think it is contingent on the applicant trying to be a good neighbor,” he said. “It would go a long way if they helped resolved some of those issues.”
Dwyer said her organization got involved in the fight to help county residents get their voices heard. This is the first county-wide protest she has organized, although Progressive Maryland has been involved in the individual communities’ fights against Wal-Mart and other issues.
“We’re working with residents in Prince George’s County to try to make Prince George’s County the way they want it, to make the future better. We’re just pulling together the residents who have been upset for a while and helping them to organize,” she said.
One of those residents was Clemmie Strayhorn of the Duvall Village Coalition. Although the Wal-Mart is not in his neighborhood, he said communities have to stick together.
“An attack on a community anywhere in Prince George’s County is an attack on all communities in Prince George’s County. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “Wherever they are in Prince George’s County, it’s my problem because they could come my way. I’m not going to wait until they’re in my backyard to say something.”
In fact, it almost was in his backyard. In 2015, the District Council voted down a proposal from Wal-Mart to build a 24-hour supercenter in Glenn Dale at the Duvall Village Shopping Center. Strayhorn said the way the retailer went about the process turned him off. He said the community was not made aware of any plans for a store until Wal-Mart applied to enlarge it over what had initially been planned.
“I wasn’t too upset about Wal-Mart, because I understand (supporting) American businesses to a certain extent. But to be non-transparent is the worst thing you can do in my book,” he said.
Strayhorn, and the others, say they are not opposed to development in the county, but want better options.
“Better to me means planned communities where there’s a good blend of commercial development and homeowners and properties,” he said.
Dwyer said that also includes “better jobs, no more urban sprawl, a greater variety of shopping options that fill all of our needs (and) sit-down restaurants.”