Opponents of plans to bring Walmart to Aspen Hill rallied Tuesday outside the Montgomery County Council building, where they presented a 2,000-signature petition.
“We are here today to ask Montgomery County Council to stand with workers and not greedy corporations,” said Matthew Hansen with Raise Maryland, a group advocating for a statewide minimum wage increase.
Representatives from Raise Maryland—flanked by Walmart workers and representatives from OUR Walmart and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400—gave the petition to Council Members Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and George Leventhal (D-At Large), vocal critics of the planning board’s recommendation to rezone in a way they claim succumbs to pressure from the big-box giant.
“We're bringing forward to County Council on Monday recommendation that instead of single-plot zoning, instead of just rezoning one parcel at the request of its property owner, that we ought to analyze the net effect on the entire commercial area of Aspen Hill,” Leventhal said during the rally, which drew about 35 protestors.
If Walmart came to town, Leventhal said, the nearby Kmart and Giant wouldn’t survive—making the retail situation worse.
“How is that in the public interest? Leventhal asked.
All seem to agree that the site in question, the empty BAE Systems building owned by Lee Development Group, is an economic eyesore for Aspen Hill and that another office building shouldn’t replace it.
The problem is that the land is zoned for office space, and not retail.
Aside from the labor activists’ argument that Walmart is a low-paying, bad corporate citizen, arguments within the council chambers have hinged on whether the county was making land use decisions for the benefit of an individual property owner without considering the broader effect on neighborhood businesses.
Montgomery County Planning Board has recommended expediting the process for changing zoning rules by bypassing the traditional method of reviewing a neighborhood’s master plan.
“It may be that the zoning has to change, and no one's going to put an office building there,” Elrich said. “But going from an office building to a regional retail draw is a fundamental change in the zoning, and it's only meant to benefit Walmart.”
But not everyone agrees.
Some Aspen Hill business owners say they are concerned that it would take too long for the county to figure out the vacant BAE building’s fate. At least a dozen business owners have banded together to advocate bringing retail to the site sooner, with hopes it will lead to more customers in their shops.
The Aspen Hill Small Business Coalition emailed members of the council to dispute the validity of several petition signatures and accused “out-of-state” groups of parachuting their cause into Aspen Hill:
While we understand that there are national, and even local organizations that will always oppose one user or another for political or other reasons, this is not a national issue and this is not about one particular user. This is about what is best for our community. We have done our best to express our collective opinion – and we hope we have done so in an honest, respectful and meaningful way that is part of a well thought out planning process which you created.