ASPEN HILL – The battle against a proposed Wal-Mart in a vacant office building in the Aspen Hill area of Rockville continues to get contentious as local community leaders deal out accusations of manipulation and potential harm for other businesses.
Joan Beerweiler of the Aspen Hill Homeowners group, a community organization who is against Wal-Mart moving into the property, says her group was formed to oppose the big box store and the re-zoning of the property from an office space to a commercial space.
“That would mean big money for Wal-Mart to get in. They only have one place and that’s Germantown
Beerweiler said someone from either Wal-Mart or Lee Development Group hired people to attend one of their community meetings posing as members of the homeowners group.
Pro Wal-Mart activists also attended county council meetings in 2013.
Ray Weiss, spokesman for Lee Development Group, denied the accusations and said the majority of the community supports the redevelopment.
The BAE Systems/Vitro site at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Aspen Hill Road is the proposed home for an 118,000 square foot superstore that will sell groceries, toiletries, clothing, and other items and would employ 300 people. The site held its last tenant in 2010 and Weiss said the company tried to find an office tenant for six years without success. In 2012, the company asked the county council to rezone the space as a commercial property. The county council voted 5-4 to expedite zoning changes of the property in 2013.
“The site as it stands now is currently sitting vacant. It does not contribute positively to the community or the local economy. Bringing retail to this site would bring more shopping options to Aspen Hill, more jobs, and more economic investment into the area. And Wal-Mart is a great prospective retailer and another strong anchor for the area. Together with the new Kohls that opened last year and expansion of the Home Depot, Aspen Hill could really be a great retail hub,” Weiss said.
The Montgomery Planning Department recently held a series of community meetings about the redevelopment and Andrea Gilles, lead planner for the Aspen Hill Minor Master Plan Amendment, says both sides were equally represented.
“It was a very robust discussion. We had people who were very much in favor of the master plan amendment process, we’ve had people who were concerned about the process, and we’ve been taking all the information and responding. That’s why we went into the community to engage where people were at in the process and to be able to respond to that input and feedback. It’s a mix,” Gilles said.
Despite the focus on Wal-Mart’s signed letter of intent with the Lee Development Group, Gilles said the development is not only about the company.
“We’re not focused on a particular tenant, we’re focused on the land use, so we are looking at the potential for allowing more flexible use in the area. Whether it be of commercial use or multi-family use and allowing for more flexibility for changing conditions that we’ve seen throughout the past decade. We’re not going through this process and planning for any particular tenant,” Gilles said.
There is concern about potential litigation as rumors of union representatives from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 obtaining a lawyer to oppose the store continue to spread throughout the community. Karina Rosado, community organizer for UFCW Local 400, said it was suggested that the group retain an attorney.
“There are people that would like a Wal-Mart but from what I’ve seen there is opposition. A lot of folks really don’t want a Wal-Mart there. It’s not that they’re not business-friendly, they don’t want a Wal-Mart. Some people are also against rezoning and they want to follow the master plan. There are varying factors for opposition,” Rosado said.
The redevelopment is in the early stages of implementation. The planning board has held three public meetings and will meet a staff briefing about the Aspen Hill Minor Master Plan Amendment on June 5 at 9 a.m. at the Montgomery County Planning Board headquarters 8787 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910.
The Aspen Hill Minor Master Plan Amendment is scheduled to be adopted in April 2015. The plan will be presented to the county council and the county executive for review.