What should we do about Big Boxes?

The County Council is debating a proposal to address the impacts from large commercial retail operations or “big boxes”. The discussion has been prompted by Council President Valerie Ervin’s bill that would require new retailers with more than 75,000 square feet of space to negotiate with community groups prior to opening. I have heard from a lot of constituents about this issue. I’d like to share my thoughts with you and hear what you think.

Big box retailers are very profitable. In 2010, Wal-Mart earned $17 billion in after-tax net income. That same year, Home Depot earned $3.3 billion, Target earned $2.9 billion and Best Buy earned $1.4 billion in after-tax net income.

At the same time, a significant number of studies have found that big boxes have had detrimental effects on wages, employment, small businesses, public health care costs and traffic. I believe that some big box retailing necessitates additional community protections. That is why I agreed to co-sponsor the Council President’s bill.

The bill requires incoming big box retailers to negotiate “community benefit agreements” with at least three community groups. The bill would seem to create the likelihood that certain community groups would get “benefits” as a result of a big box coming in. For example, a new swimming pool or support for a library in one community, or, elsewhere, local hiring preferences. It is unclear whether the bill would actually result in any benefits for the communities, however, as the only requirement is negotiation, not agreement.

Community benefits agreements are not the only proposal for addressing big box impacts. The question is, what problems are we trying to solve?

Two problems I am very concerned about are the wages and benefits issues facing workers; and the big box impacts that affect our ability to create great places to live.

On the first topic, the federal National Labor Relations Act prevents local governments from directly regulating wages and benefits in purely private-sector circumstances. But when county funding is involved, the county has a right to attach conditions to that funding. The county already requires construction contractors on county projects to pay prevailing wages. It also requires county-employed service contractors to pay living wages to their employees. Perhaps recipients of county economic development grants, loans and incentives should be required to pay living wages and health benefits. That would make sure that county money does not subsidize low-wage job creation, which will not sustain our quality of life.

On the second issue, I am concerned that big boxes in our commercial+retail+residential areas will undermine the core vision of a community designed according to principles of housing opportunity, walkability and public transportation.

The county has abundant powers to regulate land use through its zoning authority. In 2004, the county passed a zoning text amendment requiring combination retail + grocery stores with more than 120,000 square feet to obtain a special exception to operate. The Board of Appeals is empowered to make requirements on noise, lighting, traffic remediation, buffers, parking, signs and other issues. The county’s Planning Board can also address similar issues in its planning and approval process, and is well suited to address the challenges that big boxes pose for community building.

I believe we need to reexamine these regulations for big box stores. The fact that the proposed Aspen Hill Wal-Mart is planned to be 118,000 square feet – a bare 2,000 square feet below the county’s current threshold for a special exception – argues that some sort of reevaluation of our requirements may be in order.

Another Wal-Mart on Rockville Pike would be situated one-third of a mile from the Twinbrook Metro. This location is prime real estate for our continuing efforts on the Pike to build a first class community where you would want to live, shop and work. I share the view, articulated by my council colleague Roger Berliner, that we must develop the Pike consistent with the principles of walkability, with a public-transportation centered strategy. The Wal-Mart as proposed would not accomplish that.

We have to strike a balance between providing the consumer choices our residents deserve and mitigating the impact of huge commercial establishments on our environment, mobility and labor markets. I’d like to get to that balance and I think we can get it done.

But I’d like to hear what you think. How would you do it? What ideas would you put on the table? Please let me know by commenting here or emailing me. Thanks!

Community Voices on the Big Box Bill

Hello All,

I’ve heard from many of you concerning Bill 33-11, known as the Community Benefits Agreement bill. As you can see from the emails below, there are a wide range of views regarding this bill. What do you think of it? Read the bill or send me a message if you need more details!

Donna R. Savage:

To County Councilmembers:

I cannot attend the public hearing for this bill on Tuesday evening, November 1, so please accept this email in lieu of my personal testimony.

I support the testimony you’ll hear tonight from the Kensington Heights Civic Association and I support the general purpose of this proposed legislation, although there are many details that appear to be missing that would enhance its effectiveness.

However, it is my considered opinion that, through this bill, the County would be placing the responsibility for accepting a big box store on the community — which is NOT where such responsibility should lie.

If the Council knows (and I believe you do) that big box stores present significant problems for communities, especially in our dense Downcounty areas, then all of you should stand up and say so. If you don’t want them here, say so — and legislate accordingly. Be clear about your vision of growth for our County. The responsibility for that vision and for its implementation lies squarely in your collective laps.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this proposed legislation.

Adam Schiffenbauer:

I have lived in Montgomery county for most of my life and have seen our county grow. I would like to see the big box community empowerment bill passed as I feel many of the big box stores (particularly Wal Mart) are interested in coming to our community to be leeches who suck away jobs and tax revenue instead of supportive active members of the community. I am taking the time to write this to hope my voice is heard.

Abigail Brassil Adelman:

Council Chair Valerie Ervin and County Council Members,

I am writing to support with some reservations the above mentioned Bill 33-11.
In particular, I wish to express support for lines 73-75 as written. This is very important as in my community, Kensington Heights, we have experienced great difficulty dealing with Costco concerning the specifics of their yet to be built new store in Wheaton at Westfield Mall.

Last week, on Tuesday, October 25, 2011 the Kensington Heights Citizens Association (KHCA) met with 2 Costco officials and 13 of their hired ‘experts’. The meeting ended at 9:30 pm with NO mention of a schedule for site preparation and demolition mentioned or discussed.

At 4: 30 am, on October 26, 7 hours later, in violation of the Noise Control Ordinance and exceeding the 85 decibels allowed for construction from 7am to 5 pm, demolition started on the old Hechts Building.
Why? The poorly prepared and poorly secured site along with the unlawful timing points to undue haste to “start” the project. It has now been halted.

The is only one reason why this situation occurred: the proposal of Bill 33-11. Westfield and Costco will point to this poorly prepared and secured site to claim that the project was already underway when (and if) the proposed legislation is passed.

As a citizen and a taxpayer , I am respectfully requesting that the clause (lines 73-75) stand as written and the Costco NOT BE ALLOWED any ‘grandfathering opportunity’. Any claim by Westfield or Costco that the project was ‘underway’ on October 26 is false and should be so noted.

Thank you for your consideration in this very important issue.

Dean S. Cooper:

Dear Councilmembers,

In these tough economic times, which you’ve made worse with your proposals for anti-business legislation, it’s amazing that any businesses would want to do business in Montgomery County! I don’t understand why you are now proposing legislation to deter big box stores, and am especially dismayed that you’d have this apply to the Costco which you previously approved and we are waiting to be built at Wheaton Plaza. Come on: we need the jobs and the taxes from these businesses.

Warren Manison:

I have been a resident of this County for almost 40 years and it has becoming increasingly difficult to remain a resident. I see that the Council is about to dictate to private business that they can no longer use their business acumen to make decisions on their own regarding such things as where best to locate a business enterprise, but will have to negotiate with civil and governmental entities, as if these have any foggy notion what business is all about. I refer to Bill 33-11 Urban Renewal and Community Development – Community Benefits Agreements – Large Retail Stores.

This legislation is an abomination and must be killed before it places too much power and potential for more graft in the hands of politicians and self-interest groups. Dictating to a business who to hire, where to locate and what is to be the actual design of a store goes beyond the pale. Is this Council trying to drive business out of the county and make this a more inhospitable county in which to do business? Do more of our citizens have to flee this county for a less dictatorial county/state in order to free ourselves of actions such as these? Reminds me of the ridiculous action by President Obama’s NLRB preventing Boeing from building new airliners in So. Carolina, forcing China to cancel orders and instead buy from Airbus. Is this the kind of atmosphere this County Council wishes to foster here in Montgomery Country? WAKE UP, COUNCIL MEMBERS AND DO WHAT IS RIGHT FOR THE COUNTY AND ITS CITIZENS.

Brian Haney:

Council members,

As a native Washingtonian (3rd generation), a current downtown Silver Spring resident, and employee of a Bethesda-based firm founded in 1890 (the second oldest continuously operating business in Greater Washington), it has come to my attention and to the attention of the members of our firm, our families, and what I would consider the greater community at-large that legislation such as the proposed Bill 33-11 is an unnecessary and unproductive use of the council’s time, and an absolute detriment to our county and community of registered voters. The Community Benefits Agreement legislation is at best redundant to federal and state laws regulating employment practices, redundant to the County’s current regulatory review process and at worst, another example of Montgomery County’s trend towards business unfriendliness, putting us at an even further comparative disadvantage to our neighbors in DC and Virginia. Having worked in Bethesda for the last 10 years, and having seen several good firms move their Headquarters out of the County (like a CoStar for example), this is a serious concern!

As an employee of a firm who will be making a relocation decision in the next 12-18 months, legislation like this makes it measurably easier to move out of the area, quite candidly. I won’t beleaguer you with charged rhetoric, but simply request you do what I personally, the members of my community, the Chambers in the county, and the area at large demands you do – VOTE AGAINST THIS BILL!

Arnold J. Kohn

I would like to register my opposition to this measure. If community members are concerned about a specific land development application, they would have ample opportunity to air their concerns before the Planning Board. Site plan applications currently require applicants to meet with community members prior to the public hearing on their applications. Many of these community meetings already result in voluntary developer-community benefit agreements under the current procedures.

And Planning Board hearings are open public events at which community members frequently voice their opposition to specific proposals. I have personally seen Planning Board members act during public hearings as unofficial mediators between developers and community opponents, brokering ad hoc developer concessions for the benefit of residents.

But the message that Bill 33-11 would send to future retailers looking to add County locations is, at best, that the development of their store will be difficult and costly, and at worst that they simple aren’t welcome in Montgomery County. Some retailers would, I fear, just redirect their search for new locations to other jurisdictions where they would feel more of a welcoming atmosphere; Bill 33-11 will thus be viewed as anti-business and anti-retail in particular.

County residents looking to shop in some of these large stores without convenient County locations will instead either drive by automobile to jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, thus adding vehicular trips, additional traffic and air pollution to Montgomery County while depriving the State of needed sales tax revenues, to say nothing of the loss of potential property taxes and income taxes for the County.

Terry Fortuna:


Peter Anton:

Please do not allow any big box stores on Rockville Pike. The traffic is already dreadful!!

Daily journal, 11-1-11

[I posted a journal yesterday but it hasn’t appeared yet..]

Today’s highlights included meeting with a large group of members from the Women’s Suburban Democratic Club. I talked a bit about my passion for responsive and progressive government and why it is such a privilege to be part of the Montgomery County Council.

Then in council session we passed the economic development bill that I have been working on with my colleagues, by a margin of 8-1. This bill will help investors preserve capital for making investments by deferring (not reducing) their taxes until the end rather than the beginning of the development process.

The real fireworks though came tonight during the public hearing about the big box bill (see photo). More on that soon.

Daily journal, 10-28-11

I find it harder to do the journal when I’m out at an event until
10pm, as was the case on Wednesday night for the year-out Obama rally
at Blair High School. 1,000 people I am told—awesome showing and due
to the superior organizing of Jason Waskey, Jon Randall, the Obama
fellows, MCDCC members and good Democrats all over the county.

I didn’t catch any of the speeches as I was talking to activist
residents in the back of the hall about issues such as the curfew,
school redistricting, and how to get involved in county affairs. I was
amazed to meet a Silver Spring resident named Robin who had worked as
the regional coordinator for Rock the Vote in 1992!

Today was frenetic with all of the balls that are in the air with the
close out of the year and the legislative term. The proposed CBA
(community benefits agreement) bill is the subject of much discussion.

We are also preparing for a town hall in December and scoping out our
game plan for the Silver Spring Thanksgiving Parade. Hope to see you

Monday is going to be a big day with not only an update from the
Transit Task Force but also the work session on Open Government issues
that I have designed. I’m looking forward to it.