Since 2005, Sprawl-Busters has written a dozen stories about the never-ending battle against Wal-Mart in Tarpon Springs, Florida. On November 22, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart opponents in Tarpon Springs, Florida were celebrating a major victory over the retailer. After four years of pushing — Wal-Mart announced that it was giving up the battle for a superstore-by-the-river. Wal-Mart had been swimming against the public tide to build a supercenter on the banks of the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs. Despite Wal-Mart’s refusal to rule out another attempt to build this store at some point down the road, the word spread that they were in the process of formally withdrawing their site plan application from the City. If they ever came back, they’ll be starting the whole process all over – and that seemed very unlikely. The Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners voted 3 to 2 in January of 2005 to approve an enormous Wal-Mart development on the Anclote River. The site plan approved included a 24 hour SuperCenter with a 1,000 space parking lot, tire and lube center and an out parcel for a restaurant or retail store, plus 6 acres for residential or office development. A citizens group called Friends of the Anclote River charged that the plan was an irresponsible project that would have adverse impacts on the ecology, the economy, the traffic burden, and the small town character and future of the community. The Friends of Anclote kept up their battle to protect their river. After several years of internal back-and-forth, on October 16, 2008, the Tarpon Springs Planning and Zoning Board voted to recommend the City Commission declare the site plan for the Wal-Mart was no longer valid. A few days later, the City Commission voted 3-2 that the concurrency certificate had expired. On November 21, 2008, Wal-Mart withdrew its plans. The retailer said it was not selling the land — just backing off building plans for at least two years. “We’ll monitor the environment in Tarpon Springs over the next few years and determine what we’ll do with the site,” a company spokesman said. On December 17, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Pinellas County Commission had agreed to send a letter to Wal-Mart suggesting that the company sell its 74 acre undeveloped land to the county. Both Tarpon Springs and Pinellas County officials have said they would like to see the land, which has been assessed at $6.6-million, preserved. The County admitted that they were not sure about where the money would come from to buy the land, but they wanted to begin the process by expressing a clear interest to Wal-Mart. They stand in line now with Tarpon Springs officials, who wanted to convert the site into a park. The city’s attorney did not help matters much by proclaiming in November that Wal-Mart could have sued the city and won. Instead of selling its land, local officials speculate that Wal-Mart may be waiting for the next political election to see if they get more favorable city commissioners elected in 2010. Four seats will be up for grabs in the next election, including the Mayor’s seat. But if Wal-Mart was waiting for a sea change in Tarpon Springs regarding its superstore by the river — they may have a long wait. One city commissioner told the St. Petersburg Times, “Ninety percent of the people in this city don’t want it.” But this week, The SunCoast News reports the city officials in Tarpon Springs are considering whether to initiate a process to cancel its development agreement with the Wal-Mart, because its superstore plans have been dormant, and their building permit has expired. But Wal-Mart refuses to let go of the bone. The retailer told the city it still plans to develop its supercenter. In response, the city’s lawyer told officials “that revoking the development agreement does not mean that Wal-Mart will be prevented from building on its 74-acre property. Wal-Mart has the legal right to develop its property in compliance with applicable codes even in the absence of a development agreement. All that revoking the development agreement will do is remove Wal-Mart’s obligations to provide benefits to the city that it agreed to provide in the development agreement.” The city will have to conduct a hearing on revocation. Wal-Mart signed a development agreement that requires them to maintain certain green space and grant concessions to the city. The City Commission has already terminated the retailer’s Certificate of Concurrency and site plan approval when an eagle’s nest was found on site. Wal-Mart’s development agreement does not expire until April of 2010. The state legislature could extend that agreement two more years. Wal-Mart told the city’s attorney that the corporation “still intends to proceed with its desire to construct a supercenter on its property. Wal-Mart is currently evaluating its options regarding how to accommodate the eagle that is nesting on its property. Wal-Mart cannot state when it will conclude its evaluation process, as the global recession certainly plays a factor in the viability of certain options.” The retailer’s plans for Tarpon Spring, and what to do with the eagles, are still up in the air.
One city commissioner has suggested that Wal-Mart should “decide to be a good neighbor” and sell the property to the city for ballparks and other recreational uses. She also recommended that the city hold a ballot question for voters asking them if they want a Wal-Mart on this property — hoping that a negative vote would convince Wal-Mart to sell its land and leave. But Wal-Mart might also spend like a drunken sailor on such an election, and try to use the platform to “buy” support for its plans. Such votes have been heavily influenced by Wal-Mart’s lopsided spending on the ballot question, since most citizen’s groups have little or no funds. City Mayor Beverly Billiris points out that the citizen’s group the Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs will be around to prevent a store on the banks of the Anclote River. The citizens’ group has promised to monitor Wal-Mart’s every move. Mayor Billiris told the newspaper that the city is working on amendments to its land development code that could prohibit big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart from building within the city. Billiris said she contacted Wal-Mart officials and was told the company is not interested in selling its land for at least three years. The city has opened up discussions with county and federal officials to see if they can work together to preserve the riverfront land. Mayor Billiris said Wal-Mart was unwilling to negotiate with the city or county on selling the land. “We could have looked at making it some kind of a preserve and protecting it forever,” the Mayor said. Readers are urged to email Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris at: [email protected] Tell the Mayor, “I hope the city will aggressively follow up on the county’s interest to buy the Wal-Mart land and turn it into a preserve. I’d like to see the city continue to apply pressure on the retailer to do the right thing and sell the property. For starters, the company should be asked to donate the land to the city. Wal-Mart likes to talk about being a green company, and being environmentally sensitive. What better way to demonstrate their environmental concern than to donate the land to the city, and prevent taxpayers from having to buy the company out? It is not the taxpayers’ fault that Wal-Mart chose an inappropriate site by the river. Now they should repair the damage they have done to their image in Tarpon Springs by making a gift of the property to the public. They city should ask Wal-Mart publicly to make that donation during the current tax year, so they can write the donation off as a charitable gift. That would be an appropriate gift to Tarpon Springs residents, who have waded through years of company rhetoric to win their battle. You say you want Tarpon Springs to be the ‘finest city in Florida’ through ‘protection of the city’s natural resources.’ The Anclote River is one of those major resources, and after four years, its time to pressure Wal-Mart to move out and move on.”