ASPEN HILL – Residents had their say and they say “No.”
After a long and bitter battle, Wal-Mart has decided not open a store in the former BAE/Vitro site on the corner of Aspen Hill road and Georgia Avenue.
“We are disappointed that the uncertainty of a protracted regulatory process in Montgomery County cost Lee Development Group the opportunity to bring Wal-Mart to the Aspen Hill community, but we understand the company's decision to withdraw itself from our plans. We will continue to pursue the rezoning necessary to bring a retail use to the long-vacant BAE office property,” said Bruce Lee, Lee Development Group president.
Accusations from opponents and proponents of the new store included the retaining of an attorney, unfair rezoning, and lack of suitable employment for the area. Joan Beerweiler, founder of the Aspen Hill Homeowners Group, said the county council voted in support of LDG and Wal-Mart despite concerns from the community.
“We clearly feel there can be some accommodation for limited local serving retail space at the Vitro site if that’s what it takes to make it viable. But Aspen Hill must have good office jobs to meet the needs of the community as well as provide the economic stability for retail businesses that exist in Aspen Hill, and not just at the Northgate Plaza Shopping Center, where the Lee Development Group (LDG) is the landlord and a number of small businesses there make up a group that supports LDG,” Beerweiler said. “Essentially the county council should have worked with the community in a comprehensive fashion. We should not rush to make a mistake. That’s what comprehensive planning is about. And that’s what community participation is about.”
District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Navarro voted in support of rezoning the former BAE/Vitro site, which was vacated in 2010, but did not support a Wal-Mart opening in that location. In a 2011 memo to Lee Navarro expressed her concerns about the store, saying the store may cannibalize and not complement existing businesses. There is currently a Giant food market, a K-Mart and a Home Depot less than a mile from the proposed site. Most Wal-Marts sell food, clothing, toiletries and home improvement supplies. Other concerns about the store also included livable wages. The store would have employed 300 people.
“I think there is a chance to put that site to great use. It doesn't have to be a big-box retailer, it could be a mixed-use project, etc. It's really important to have a vision for what will best fit the needs of the community,” Navarro said. “Unfortunately, the ‘Wal-Mart’ factor has not allowed for that type of conversation. Once the planning board makes its recommendation, we shall go through the process. It’s my hope that the site will be put to good use versus accepting the current situation of an empty site in the middle of a vibrant retail area.”
Controversy about the store circled around the accelerated rezoning of the BAE/Vitro space, which is zoned as an office space, under the new rezoning the space will be zoned as mixed use retail.
At-Large councilmember Marc Elrich said the rezoning was “not accelerated because of Wal-Mart B.S.”
“We had a chance to do the rezoning for the entire area but instead chose to only do the Wal-Mart. Our decision and the planning board’s decision was for nothing because Wal-Mart is gone,” Elrich said. “The planning board wasted a year and now there is no Wal-Mart. There was no reason to do the special rezoning they were doing for Wal-Mart…They claim they didn’t look at the Wal-Mart and that’s B.S. Everyone knows what the zoning was about but they can’t say what it’s about and now that that’s gone they need to look at all of Aspen Hill and figure out what is the right zoning. I hope the planning board finally decides to engage the community.”
Gwen Wright, director of the Montgomery County Planning Department, said despite Wal-Mart dropping out of redevelopment plans, the Aspen Hill Minor Master Plan will move forward. “We are proceeding because this plan was never about Wal-Mart (or solely the Vitro site). We are trying to provide for the most appropriate land uses on the west side of Connecticut Avenue in Aspen Hill, not plan for a specific user,” Wright said. “We expect that the resulting zoning recommendations will allow a variety of land uses and specific users. Compatibility and connectivity are also important goals with this plan… The Planning Department never endorsed any particular user or retail tenant as part of the master plan. The proposed zone for the Vitro site allows a range of commercial and residential uses – it was never all about zoning the property for Wal-Mart.”
Despite the criticism from community organizations, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said the majority of the community was supportive of the project. According to statistics obtained from Wal-Mart, Montgomery County residents spend more than $124 million annually at area Wal-Mart stores. The Germantown location is currently the only Wal-Mart in the county.
On Sept. 11, the Montgomery County Planning Board will hold a public hearing and make a decision about the zoning of the BAE/Vitro building. Once the planning board makes its recommendation, the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee (PHED) will make a recommendation of its own before the council votes on the zoning of the property and the Aspen Hill Master Plan.