The latest shelving by Wal-Mart Stores of plans to open a store in Aspen Hill touched off a few more questions over whether Montgomery County’s planning and regulatory processes are too complex and overbearing.
Wal-Mart expressed interest in opening a 118,000-square-foot, 300-employee store at the northwest corner of Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue more than two years ago but recently withdrew those plans, citing uncertainty in the county’s zoning processes.
Two years ago, Wal-Mart pulled out of plans to open a store in Rockville along Rockville Pike near Twinbrook Parkway after opposition arose.
“They gave it more than two years,” said Bruce H. Lee, president of Silver Spring-based Lee Development Group, the developer of that site. The land has had a vacant 263,000-square-foot building built in 1968 since defense and aerospace contractor BAE Systems moved out in 2010. “Most retailers won’t stick it out even that long. Retailers like certainty.”
It typically takes 15 months to get a new preliminary plan approved in the county and a year for a new site plan, according to a July 29 report by Montgomery County’s Office of Legislative Oversight. A record plat can consume nine to ten months, with approvals for all three taking more than three years, the report says.
Efforts to streamline the county’s development approval processes “are not new” and include implementing electronic plan reviews, the report says. The office recommended increased County Council oversight, such as setting approval time frames for each step of the process and holding “performance improvement” work sessions every six months with planning staff and industry representatives.
Responding to the report, county Chief Administrative Officer Timothy Firestine said many recommendations of previous reports have been implemented. For instance, a zoning rewrite has further simplified some of the process, he said.
“The county has continued to enjoy significant development activity,” Firestine said. “While there is room for improvement, there are many success stories in Montgomery County.”
The report did not really capture many improvements resulting from a cross-agency streamlining program in the past two years, he said.
Judy Fink, a resident of Aspen Hill and part of a neighborhood group that opposes a big box store at the site, agreed the process was lengthy. “But it favors the developer over the comments and wishes of the community,” she said.