Big box stores bring big issues to Aspen Hill and Wheaton -- Gazette.Net







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With a Costco on the way in Wheaton and a Walmart proposed for Aspen Hill, big box stores have become a hot topic in the mid-county area.

Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) will introduce legislation next week that would require big box retailers coming into the county to agree to a legally binding community benefit agreement with nearby residents and businesses.

In a letter last week to Lee Development Group President Bruce Lee, Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4), who represents Aspen Hill, wrote she does not support the planned 118,000-square-foot Walmart store at 13900 Connecticut Ave. The Lee Development Group owns the land that is now home to a vacant office space. The developer needs the county planning board and council to approve a master plan amendment to allow for retail use before Walmart can come in.

“Aspen Hill has a unique character that could be irreparably damaged by the introduction of Walmart. This community needs mixed use, sustainable development that promotes synergy and helps the entire community’s economy,” Navarro wrote. “Any new retail in Aspen Hill should complement, not cannibalize, the existing businesses in the community.”

The potential harm to nearby small businesses was a reason Ervin didn’t support the Costco in the Westfield Wheaton shopping center. Westfield Wheaton received a $4 million subsidy from the county to lure the warehouse store to the mall. Mall officials expect the 80,000-square-foot Costco to be completed by early 2013.

Ervin said she does not yet have a position on the Walmart in Aspen Hill. County government employee union UFCW Local 1994 started an online petition in September claiming Ervin was pushing for the Walmart because of campaign contributions from Lee.

“Do I believe big box stores are the right thing to have in communities? Not necessarily. There's two sides of this story,” Ervin said.

She will introduce her upcoming community benefits agreement legislation, which would require all new retailers that have indoor space of 75,000 square feet or larger to agree on conditions with local community groups, during Tuesday’s council session.

“It gives people in the surrounding communities a lot of say about what goes on,” Ervin said. “The community that makes up Aspen Hill is going to have to get fully engaged in this thing.”

Ervin’s bill would allow for provisions from big box stores to cover living wages, local hiring and training programs, environmental remediation, traffic mitigation and other items.

Steve Silverman, director of the county’s Department of Economic Development, said the county’s economic policy is focused on supporting small businesses, not attracting large retail stores, and that the county’s support of Costco was an exception to the rule.

“We’re not moving in the direction to make it easier for big box stores. We’re not preventing them, but that’s not part of our strategy,” Silverman said. “Our strategy is the nurturing of small businesses. In the case of Costco, it is to get to more people coming to Wheaton who otherwise wouldn’t be going there. The belief is that will benefit the small businesses and restaurants there.”

Aspen Hill presents a different set of circumstances. A Home Depot already exists just north of the proposed Walmart site. The strip mall across Connecticut Avenue is full of franchise restaurants and not many independent businesses.

“The county executive [Isiah Leggett] is waiting to get more information on the proposal itself, but having said that, Aspen Hill is not an urban center. It’s unclear at this point what the impact of a Walmart in Aspen Hill would be on the businesses and neighborhoods there,” Silverman said. “Walmart is proposing to go into an area that is not an urban center, not even a retail hub.”

It’s unknown what effect Ervin’s proposed legislation would have on the Aspen Hill Walmart, since it must go through a separate rezoning process. Walmart confirmed its plans for the Aspen Hill store on Sept. 23.

“In order for a Walmart to be built there has be a limited master plan ammendment, then a zoning change,” Ervin said. “It’s a very difficult process that they have to go through to get approval. Right now, we’re operating on parallel tracks.”