Queen Anne’s County voters last week settled two arguments on the direction of growth by defeating a “Big Box” law and another measure that would weaken infrastructure standards contained in the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.
“It has been stated repeatedly by certain members of the QAC Board of Commissioners that a small vocal minority has been trying to stop everything in QAC,” said Commissioner David Dunmyer the day after the vote. “They have even gone further in saying that everyone they speak to wants to have more residential and commercial growth. Obviously they aren’t talking to enough people in the county. The votes…clearly reflect the desire of the citizens to maintain our rural way of life as defined by our exceptional comprehensive plan.”
The final tallies in the referendums rebuked three QAC commissioners who were accused of muscling through the legislation in the face of loud opposition from conservation groups and residents—in favor of business interests in the county.
Opponents said the measures would threaten family owned businesses and seriously delay road and school expansion as the population in QAC grows. But pro-business groups said the measures would create jobs, increase county revenues, and answer popular demand for superstores in QAC.
The “Big Box” law came from an amendment request in April of 2011 from a Kingstown landowner, who wanted the 65,000 square foot floor limit on retail stores waived in order to attract a superstore.
The zoning request received a negative recommendation from the QAC Planning and Zoning Commission in a 4-1 vote — but the QAC Commissioners overruled the planning commission and passed measure in August that changed the 65,000 square-foot limit to “unlimited” — sparking opposition from conservation groups and local residents who successfully mounted a petition drive to put the law to referendum.
Some of QAC’s neighbors to the north in Kent County joined the opposition out of fear that a large retail development near Chestertown would hurt smaller family owned businesses.
Barry Waterman, president of Barry Waterman Realty, and chair of the Queen Anne’s County Planning Commission, said that limiting the size of retail stores would continue to take money out of the local economy along with jobs.
“The downside is that people who want to shop at the “big box” will continue to drive out of the county to Middletown, Delaware,” Waterman said. “And jobs associated with the big box will remain there…it’s not like people aren’t going to go to a big box store because we don’t have one, it just makes it a little more inconvenient.”
Waterman also doubted opponents’ fears that super stores could not coexist with small businesses.
“I have not seen the destruction of small business in Talbot or Caroline, or anywhere else that has a big box,” Waterman said. “Those stores pay a lot of taxes and employ a lot of people. You see a lot of small businesses in shopping centers with Targets of Walmarts.”
The law was rejected by nearly 55% of the 22,167 votes cast.
The Adequate Public Facilities law would have allowed road and school construction requirements to lag until school populations reached 120 percent of capacity. Currently, the QAC school system is operating at 100 percent capacity–and overflow trailers have substituted as classrooms for nearly a decade.
The law was written by QAC Commissioner Phil Dumenil, who argued that easing infrastructure requirements until schools reached 120 percent capacity would trigger state funding to help pay for roads and schools.
Opponents, many of the same residents and organizations that fought the “big box,” argued that infrastructure would radically degrade under the proposal.
“[The current] APFO is designed to make sure that development does not get ahead of infrastructure,“ said Jim Campbell of Queen Anne’s Conservation in an interview with the Spy last October. “This new proposal would weaken the infrastructure requirements and let development move ahead in the hope that infrastructure will catch up with development later down the line.”
QAC voters rejected the law by a vote 13,217 to 8,674.
“The people have spoken on their vision of how they want the county to look as contained in the comprehensive plan,” said Queen Anne’s County Executive Direct Jay Falstad. “That vision has been validated by both of these referendums. It’s clear that QAC citizens want the county to remain rural, and it is clear that they care about the quality of their schools and roads, and that they support locally owned businesses.”