On October 18, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City Council in Neptune Beach, Florida had turned down a Wal-Mart superstore project in September, but had agreed to negotiate before a “special master” with Wal-Mart to try to reach a settlement. Three months later, the mediation has not even started, but town officials have complained to the Florida Times-Union that the city has spent $93,000 fighting Wal-Mart’s project. About $74,000 has been spent on the city’s attorney, but another $18,000 has been spent on consultants and a traffic engineer. Wal-Mart applied to build to a 117,000-square-foot supercenter, which led to mediation, which begins next week before a Special Magistrate in Jacksonville. One City Councilor is playing right into Wal-Mart’s strategy book. “My recommendation would be that we stop spending money on this and go ahead and approve their application,” the Councilman told the newspaper. Neptune Beach last year voted in a 60,000 s.f. cap on commercial buildings. Another Councilman noted that hundreds of residents did not want this store. “The majority of the council chose to defend its code to its knowledge, right, wrong or indifferent,” Councilman Fred Lee said.
No town looks forward to litigation, but when a giant corporation goes to court against a town, the real issue is whether or not the community thinks it has a solid case. If they do, it’s worth it to defend the residents from bad land use decisions, rather than to accept a bad plan because of the short-run litigation costs. This supercenter brings no added value to Neptune Beach, and a citizens group was formed to oppose it. There was widespread unhappiness with the plan. Land use decisions are not, however, just popularity contests. But in this community, the city council had passed a clear ordinance limiting the size of buildings, and Wal-Mart’s superstore is about twice the size of the store cap. One would like to think that developers would respect a town’s vision of where it wants to go, rather than trying to make the town fit the corporation’s plans. But Wal-Mart apparently is not deterred by a community’s expression of what kind of development it wants. Now the city is locked into a negotiation process that can only help Wal-Mart, since the city has rejected the company’s plans. Wal-Mart will not offer to honor the size cap, so the city has absolutely nothing to gain from mediation. The taxpayers in Neptune Beach can thank Wal-Mart for its everyday high legal bills.