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Opponents call Montgomery County vote 'fast-tracking Walmart'

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Photo - OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 08:  The Wal-Mart logo is displayed on the exterior of a Wal-Mart store January 8, 2009 in Oakland, California. Wal-Mart has posted weaker than expected same store sales for December and has lowered its fourth quarter earnings forecast to 91 cents to 94 cents $1.03 to $1.07 a share.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 08: The Wal-Mart logo is displayed on the exterior of a Wal-Mart store January 8, 2009 in Oakland, California. Wal-Mart has posted weaker than expected same store sales for December and has lowered its fourth quarter earnings forecast to 91 cents to 94 cents $1.03 to $1.07 a share. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Local,Maryland,Andy Brownfield,Montgomery County

The Montgomery County Council on Monday approved a proposal that some lawmakers say would speed up construction of a Walmart in Aspen Hill.

Council members voted 5-4 to start the process of a "minor master plan" including zoning changes to properties on Connecticut Avenue, which would allow the area to be used for retail -- including the big box giant. The land is currently zoned for office space.

The county Planning Board now will draft a new zoning plan, with public hearings and adoption coming by 2015. If the council had rejected the proposal, the rezonings would have been put off until 2017.

Opponents of the move characterized it as catering to Walmart to avoid having the retail giant go through the normal, longer zoning process.

"This minor master plan process is an appalling, an appalling change," said Councilman George Leventhal, D-at-large, noting that the public didn't have a chance to weigh in on the decision prior to the council's vote.

Residents packed an April 2 council meeting, carrying signs supporting the development. Leventhal charged, and a Walmart spokeswoman at the time confirmed, that some of the residents were bused in by the company for a public show of support.

"To vote for the ... amendment is to fast-track Walmart. That is what this vote is about, there is no question, those are the facts," Leventhal said.

But council members who supported the zoning change said residents wanted to see the site -- a BAE Systems office building that the current owner calls obsolete -- used for something useful instead of standing abandoned.

Council President Nancy Navarro, D-Eastern County, said the current building is an eyesore and the community -- largely people of color -- want to see it put to use. She noted that the council only makes the decision on whether to allow the property to be used for retail, not which store would move into the space.

Navarro was joined voting in favor of the expedited rezoning process by council members Nancy Floreen, Phil Andrews, Roger Berliner and Craig Rice.

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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