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Why Bill 13-16 Failed

23 April 2013

Why did Bill 13-16 which would regulate stores exceeding 75,000 square feet, fail to come to vote, inspite of hundreds of citizens who showed up to the public hearing and also stayed for the usually sparsely attended meeting of the Harford County Council?  Most of the people came to support the bill.  Opposing the bill were the Harford County Chamber of Commerce, the lawyers for the owners of the property who wanted to sell to one such large store, and a handful of people who do not live near the affected area – though as I have repeatedly argued, the affected area extends far beyond Plumtree and Laurel Bush roads.

This narrow view of the impact of permitting Walmart to open a store on Plumtree road was in part responsible for the failure of the community to take action against the move.  From the first meeting I attended at Patterson Mill High School in July 2012, till the County Council meeting, the primary issue raised has been traffic.  The traffic study reported that Walmart on Plumtree Road would bring an additional 10,000 cars per day to the road.  
Even Nina Albert, who spoke on behalf of Walmart at that “Community Input Meeting” tried to explain at one point that traffic was not the only point brought up on the cards that people had passed to the front of the hall for discussion at the meeting.  However people would hear none of it, and continued talking about the traffic.  
After the bill failed, and the rest of the items on the agenda for the weekly council meeting had been covered, the floor was open for “input from attending citizens.”   The Council President reminded everyone that the bill had failed to come to vote and therefore comments on it would not be allowed.  A gentleman rose to speak, saying he would speak “around” the bill.  That was not allowed.   “I know you’re upset,” he added, “I am too.  But I have to enforce the rules.”  He said, “Well then I will deal with Walmart.”  He was permitted to continue, and I have noted what he said here: Walmart has “not met the regulations till date.”
The immediate reason for the failure of the bill was that when Councilman MacMahon proposed it, no one seconded the motion.  Why not?  After the meeting was over I heard some of the council members saying that the amendments that were added to the bill rendered it useless.  That does not seem to have stopped them from voting on the amendments, which passed 5-2.    As it turns out, the Council must conduct a public hearing on the bill, but it need hear the public on the amendments.  So after the public hearing, in which the people overwhelmingly supported the bill, the Council meeting took place and the council members added amendments to “clarify language” but also to exempt any applications already underway.  
One reason the bill failed was that at no point were people prepared to take a stand on the impact of Walmart not only on Laurel Bush Road, Plumtree Road and Bel Air South, and not only on traffic and public safety, but on the economy of the county, state and indeed the world.  Anytime anyone brought this up, three or four more people would come to the mike and declare their love for Walmart, even showing off things they were wearing that day that they had bought there. And brought the issue firmly back to the location of this specific Walmart.  I saw this in July at the Community Input Meeting and saw it again on April 16 at the public hearing on Bill 13-16.
In fact, after I spoke at the Council Meeting  in September and read out the 10 reasons to oppose Walmart’s move to Plumtree, when I came back for the Development Advisory Committee Meeting, a security guard at the Council Chambers approached me and said that I spoke very well and he appreciated all my points except one. 
Which one?  Point 7 on public safety where I mention that SuperWal-Mart (proposed for Plumtree Road) can also sell guns.
So in the effort to meet people where they were, I picked up on the traffic issue and related it to the economic issue – the state of Maryland has already built roads to accommodate the traffic near the existing Walmart, which is the sensible location for such a store.  I worked in the downtown – local business angle where I could – asking people to think beyond the immediate “Bel Air South” neighbourhood and also think of “Bel Air North” including downtown Bel Air, also called “the Heart of Harford County.”  Whenever I brought up the issue of Walmart’s unfair business practices, I tied it to the economic burden the corporation placed on the public to subsidize its operations and support its employees through taxpayer-funded public assistance.   Not to mention all the tax it doesn’t pay by challenging its property tax assessment, deducting rent payments made to itself, and any other loopholes they can use.  I didn’t mention this because it would have brought on praise of capitalism.
Should we have said, “bring it on?”   I thought I was being strategic in using arguments on which the people would readily unite.  People applauded, and asked me to speak.  So I spoke.  
Was it for this?
Would we have done better if we had addressed the issue as a whole, from the location to the business practices to the economic, social and environmental impact?  There is still a way, as Bill Weland argued after the council meeting, to deny permission under the rules of the B3 zoning code.  Will we need to change our strategy in order to demonstrate that permitting Wal-mart to buy this property is not in the best interests of the community?


In fact Walmart doesn’t deny its tax-breaks and subsidies, on the contrary it claims they serve economic growth.   Here are details of tax-breaks and subsidies that Walmart gets:
from: Making Change at Walmart (Walmart workers’ organization)
Dollars and Sense Magazine, January/February 2005
Wal-Mart’s Expansion Aided By Many Taxpayer Subsidies
By Barnaby J. Feder, New York Times, May 24, 2004
Walmart Subsidy Watch
And here’s how the Baltimore Sun reported the failure of Bill 13-16 in the Harford County Council: 
Anti-Walmart bill dies in County Council
Council members decline to vote after public urges support during hearing
12:35 p.m. EDT, April 18, 2013

From → Civics, Economy

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