No 'courtesy' for Wegmans

Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond faces the kind of decision that makes a job like hers tough. She is being asked whether to allow the rezoning of an empty industrial site in Owings Mills to allow a major retail development anchored by a Wegmans. Depending on which of the hundreds of phone calls, letters and emails she listens to, saying yes would either spark the long-awaited flowering of the less successful of the county's two designated growth areas or condemn Owings Mills to a paradoxical fate — clogged with traffic and empty stores, the suburban equivalent of Yogi Berra's complaint about a restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

What's making the situation more difficult is that this isn't just a matter of a community divided about the relative merits of opening a major new grocery store at the same time as the long-awaited Owings Mills Metro Centre and the welcome redevelopment of the moribund Owings Mills Mall. It's also a competition between the influential developers (and their attorneys, PR firms and assorted helpmates) who are backing the three projects and seeking a competitive advantage.

The Wegmans proposal comes from Greenberg Gibbons, which developed the Hunt Valley Towne Centre (which also has a Wegmans). Among its team of development attorneys is former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. The Metro Centre developer is David S. Brown Enterprises, a major player in the office and retail market in Baltimore County. And the mall redevelopment is by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which owns many of the other malls in the area and has partnered on this project with Kimco Realty, one of the nation's biggest developers of shopping centers and grocery stores. Kimco has hired KO Public Affairs, one of whose principals, Damian O'Doherty, is a former top aide to Mr. Smith.

The Wegmans proposal has sparked an unusually professional response from community members. A group called the Say No to Solo Coalition has paid for mass mailings and robocalls in opposition to the project, and its refusal to disclose the source of its funding is fueling skepticism that the effort is AstroTurf rather than genuine grass roots. But that's not the only money that muddies the picture.

The players in this dispute have contributed to the campaigns of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (whose planning department endorsed the Wegmans plan) and various members of the County Council. The role of Mr. Smith in bankrolling some of those who will eventually vote on the matter is worth particular note; a combination of transfers from his campaign account and fundraisers organized by his current law partners provided more than $50,000 to one council member (Tom Quirk) and nearly $90,000 to another (Cathy Bevins).

Since those council members represent other parts of the county, that would not ordinarily make a difference. Ms. Almond got $6,000 from Mr. Smith and $2,000 from Mr. Brown, and based on the way the council typically operates, hers may be the only voice that matters. Under the principle of "councilmanic courtesy," zoning decisions are typically left at the sole discretion of the member whose district is affected, and Ms. Almond, who speaks favorably about the Wegmans project but has not formally endorsed it, insists that it should be upheld in this case as well.

But the key question in determining this project's fate may well be whether the other members of the council recognize that it demands a less parochial view. The Wegmans site may be in Ms. Almond's 2nd District, but the mall and Metro Centre, though less than a mile away, are in the 4th District, which is represented byKenneth N. Oliver. He opposes the Wegmans, and it is laughable to suggest that his opinion, and that of his constituents, should not matter. Furthermore, the Metro Centre has been the focus of significant investments of county and state tax dollars, which makes the question of another nearby development that may or may not affect its success more than a local matter. The grocery store would require even more public investment in improvements to Reisterstown Road and area interchanges. And finally, the Wegmans site is now zoned for industrial use. Changing that to allow retail — something the county has historically been reluctant to do — has wider implications.

This is not just a dispute between neighbors about development and traffic, nor should it be a matter of which deep-pocketed special interests have more pull. There are arguments to be made on both sides, but what is clear is that this isn't a run-of-the-mill zoning case. This is a decision that will affect the success of millions of dollars in public investments, and it is one that the full council needs to make for the benefit of the entire county. Councilmanic courtesy may be a useful convention for keeping up good relations among elected officials, but it's not always the best way to make policy.