This week a Wal-Mart battle in Tarpon Springs, Florida reached its three year mark — and the giant retailer has suffered yet another setback. On January 19, 2005 at 6:45am, after nearly 12 hours of testimony, with more than 300 plus citizens and business owners testifying against the plan, the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to approve an enormous Wal-Mart development on the Anclote River. One vote made the difference. The site plan approved contains 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. 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. In June of 2006, local resident Chris Hrabovsky alleged that federal wetlands regulators at the Army Corps of Engineers had worked in lockstep with Wal-Mart to ensure the retailer received necessary permits. Hrabovsky contended that the permits were issued in violation of federal wetlands conservation laws. He sued the city, but lost his appeal in court. The Friends of Anclote kept up their battle to protect their river. “That’s our main concern,” a spokeswoman for the group stated. “It’s a river of special significance and state agencies have not taken that to heart.” Under community pressure, Wal-Mart submitted a second plan in October of 2007, with a 204,000 s.f., Mediterranean-style Supercenter. The City of Tarpon Springs’ Technical Review Committee (TRC), after a three hour hearing, voted to approve the plan — with some minor changes. But the Friends of the Anclote River filed an appeal with the city’s Board of Adjustment, arguing that the TRC review was not warranted, because the changes Wal-Mart made in its updated site plan were major in nature, not minor ones. Major changes would trigger further city review and public hearings. This week, roughly three months after the TRC vote, the citizens won their point. Channel 10 News reports that after several hours of testimony, the Tarpon Springs Board of Adjustment decided that Wal-Mart was, in fact, requesting major changes to its plan. Wal-Mart testified that the changes were minor, but opponents said the changes were major. Minor changes could have been approved by the city staff — but major changes require public hearings and a vote by the City Commission. That leaves Wal-Mart with two options: appeal the ruling by the Board of Adjustment, or turn the clock back three years, and go back to seek a vote from the Board of Commissioners.
Back in January of 2005, Mayor Beverley Billiris told the media that “she didn’t want to approve the plan” for a Wal-Mart supercenter, but said, “Wal-Mart has a legal right to build on the site, and she doesn’t want to spend taxpayers money defending against a lawsuit.” But one of her colleagues, Commissioner Peter Nehr, told Channel 10: “If it costs us $30,000 or $40,000, I think it’s a fight that would have been worth for the city to pay for to save the heritage, the culture that we in Tarpon Springs are known for.” There are no less than 15 Wal-Mart stores, including 5 supercenters, within 21 miles of Tarpon Springs. The Wal-Mart store in Palm Harbor is less than 4 miles away. Readers are urged to contact Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris at (727) 938-3711, or email her at [email protected] Tell the Mayor, “Your town likes to describe itself as ‘historic, picturesque, and unspoiled.’ You have a rare chance to take a second vote to keep it that way. If Wal-Mart comes back to the Commissioners, I urge you to vote against their plan. Your one vote against them is critical. They have wasted three years of your time already, and with 5 Wal-Mart supercenters within 21 miles of your community, there is clearly no added value to your economy from this project. You promote Tarpon Springs for its beautiful saltwater bayous. Keep Tarpon Springs unspoiled by Wal-Mart, and push them away from the Anclote River.”