A new “Big Box” law passed in QAC in 2011 has been on hold for over a year—waiting for an up or down vote from QAC voters in referendum on election day.
“This referendum will decide the future direction of Queen Anne’s County,” said Queen Anne’s Conservation Executive Director Jay Falstad in an email to the Spy on Wednesday. “Either the county will remain a predominantly rural county, with unique small towns where citizens support local businesses, or we’ll go the way of Middletown and Dover, where developers dominate and pave things over, and the big retail stores squeeze out the little guy. If we go the wrong way, Queen Anne’s County will be on the fast track to look no different than the Western Shore, complete with overloaded traffic and higher taxes. We can do better if we simply make the right choices for the long term.”
The law killed a 65,000 square foot limit on the size of retail stores in areas zoned “Suburban Commercial” and overruled the recommendations of the QAC Planning Commission, which voted 4-1 against lifting the size limitation in April of 2011.
Passage of the law ignited a firestorm of opposition from many residents and conservationists who say the law will blight the rural landscape with monoliths of national retail chains that drive small businesses under.
Within days after passage in August of 2011, a grass roots effort began that secured more than enough signatures to postpone the law and put it to referendum.
The size restriction was enacted as a result of a plan to build a Walmart on Kent Island over a decade ago, said Former QAC Commissioner Benjamin Cassell Jr..
“Walmart wanted to come to the area at Rt. 8 and Rt. 50,” Cassell said. He said recommendations from the QAC Planning Commission were later adopted into the comprehensive plan to limit retail space to 65,000 square feet.
He said he has seen the economic devastation of the “Walmart Effect” up close.
“I’ve experienced it first hand,” Cassell said. “I’ve done a lot of business over my career with Walmart. I know their marketing plan [and] it is Walmart’s market strategy to drive their small competitors out of business.”
Cassell said he is not an absolutist and believes local community support for a larger project could be considered for an exception in rare cases.
“As a rule of thumb I would be against any exception unless there is a strong argument by the local community to support it,” Cassell said. “If Queenstown wanted a Target Store, that would be up to that community.”
“I’m a Republican, I like free enterprise and I like competition, but it has to be balanced,” Cassell said. “To open up QAC to just anybody is just too risky.”
Cassell said the size restriction was modeled after the K-Mart on Kent Island, which is 65,000 square feet.
“That is one of the most profitable K-Marts in the nation,” Cassell said.
Ending the size limitations has become an unabashed mission of developer Mareen Waterman who supported the successful election bids of commissioners friendly to development interests.
Speaking before the QAC Commissioners last year in support of passage, Waterman said big retailers could actually help small business, improve the tax base and be better for the environment.
“Limitations on size has been detrimental to our tax base, because it prevents major tenants from locating in our county – thus preventing the smaller stores [from succeeding] near bigger anchor tenants,” Waterman said to the commissioners. “For too long here, citizens, especially those of low and modest incomes, have been forced to drive out of the county in order to shop at major retailers who offer competitive prices…they have to spend extra gasoline dollars and create additional carbon footprint and air pollution.”
Non-retail space in QAC is not subject to the same size restrictions in “Suburban Commercial” districts.