On April 19, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that it might be several months before an Administrative Law Judge made a very big decision about a very big Wal-Mart distribution center in Crescent City, Florida. This week, that decision came down. A controversial 850,000 s.f. Wal-Mart distribution center placed on the border of two counties has touched off a bitter battle between the two county governments. On August 26, 2007, Sprawl-Busters noted that Wal-Mart was in line for a series of financial “gifts” from Florida taxpayers in return for building a distribution center less than 4 miles south of Crescent City, Florida. The giant retailer sought to convince local officials that without public subsidies, their distribution center would never fly. It’s not remarkable that this huge company would try to act like a welfare recipient — but what is remarkable is that any city or town official would fall for that “poor mouth” routine. In Putnam County, Florida, Wal-Mart asked county taxpayers to pick up the cost of a $2 million road to their proposed distribution center in South Putnam. Wal-Mart wrote up a 60 page memorandum of understanding for the Putnam County Commissioners. The $2 million road will be called “New Crawford Road,” but it really should be called “Walton’s Welfare Road,” because it will give Wal-Mart trucks and workers direct access to the distribution center from U.S 17. Wal-Mart suggested the access road after opponents raised objections to truck traffic on Clifton Road adjacent to the site. Wal-Mart says the county would pay for the road with a $2 million “grant” from the state Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development. So state taxpayers are being clipped for the $2 million “grant.” Wal-Mart has even offered to loan $2 million to the county until the grant is obtained. If the road costs more than that, the memorandum says, the county would have to look for more sources of funds. If no other sources are found, Wal-Mart will pick up the difference. Even worse, county taxpayers will assume ongoing maintenance of the road, which will need significant maintenance because of the incessant heavy truck traffic. But there’s more. The Wal-Mart MOU with the county also requires that the county assist Wal-Mart in obtaining job training and job training funds through the Florida Workforce Investment Act and other programs. The county must also agree not to raise the property tax assessments on the property until the distribution center is completed. Wal-Mart is also in line for as much as $2.8 million under the state’s Qualified Target Industry grant as an “economic development project in a priority funding area.” If Wal-Mart guarantees 400 full time jobs, the company will also benefit from the county’s Job Incentive Program, under which the county will rebate Wal-Mart $280,000 per year after collecting a projected $380,000 per year in property taxes from the company. On September 28, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Putnam County Commissioners had voted on two proposals concerning the Wal-Mart Distribution center. They both passed by a vote of 4 to 1. One proposal changed the wording in the Comprehensive Plan, and the other proposal has Wal-Mart funding the entry road from US 17 to the proposed distribution center. The County Commissioners claim the distribution facility will mean 400 to 600 news jobs.” “The hue and cry in our county is for jobs and for development,” Commission Chairman Hermon Somers Jr. told the Palatka Daily News. “It is a welcome improvement for the economic development of Putnam County.” Commissioner Ed Taylor, who voted No, said the Wal-Mart warehouse will cause a “gigantic traffic nightmare” and that most of the center’s jobs will go to residents of Volusia County. Taylor also opposed the welfare payments to the world’s largest retailer. Attorney Michael Woodward of Interlachen, Florida, who has been retained by residents against the distribution center, said “you (can) put this (distribution center) in places they don’t belong, where they don’t make sense, where they turn people’s lives upside down, where they disrupt neighborhoods and where they’re not legal under the growth management laws of the state of Florida.” At the end of March, 2009 the controversial warehouse facility went to court. A group of residents, joined by neighboring Volusia County, filed a lawsuit to block the rezoning of the 220 acres of potato farm. Volusia County charged that Wal-Mart’s project violates the state’s rules against urban sprawl, but the judge ruled that this topic was outside the scope of the original petition. Putnam County defends its pro-Wal-Mart facility, and the state Department of Community Affairs is also siding with Putnam County, and against Volusia. Opponents argued that there is no demonstrated need for the huge project, and that its use is industrial, and inappropriate for an agricultural area, which lacks proper water, sewer and road infrastructure. Volusia County officials explained that the distribution center will be 20 miles from the nearest state highway, and that 450 trucks will drive in and out of the facility every day on Volusia roads. “Every five minutes (neighbors) will be looking at a trailer truck or have to follow a string of trailer trucks wherever they’re going to go,” a county official told the court. “Our primary interest is what we believe will be overtaxing U.S. 17,” Volusia County’s lawyer told the West Volusia Beacon. “It’s just a two-lane road. We thought the traffic issue is a big problem.” The hearings before the Administrative Law Judge lasted for five days. This week, roughly six months after the case went to court, the Judge has ruled in favor of Putnam County, and against the neighbors and Volusia County. In a 50 page decision, Judge Bram Canter recommended that the state issue the final order on the project. “We are overjoyed by the judge’s decision, said the head of the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce. “It is the culmination of nearly eight years of hard work by a lot of different people in the public and private section… .this is the right place and the right facility. It will provide a rebirth for the southern part of our county.” Judge Canter said the project was compliant because town water and sewer services were being added to the area, and a new access road off Route 17 to the site. “My clients and I are disappointed,” said Attorney Woodward, representing the neighbors, “but we also understood that we were up against long odds. We are taking on not just the county, but also the state government and the biggest corporation in the country — that’s a pretty tough fight.” The chair of the County Commissioners for Putnam County told the newspaper, “At this state in our economy, what more could we want than some good jobs?” Another county commissioner stated, “People deserve an honest wage for an honest day’s work.” Presumably this Commissioner refuses to shop at Wal-Marts — but is OK with the distribution centers that feed the stores their merchandise.
It is now up to the Florida Department of Community Affairs to issue a final order on the project. That decision is expected by Christmas. Volusia County now has 15 days to file an ‘exception’ to the Administrative Law Judge’s decision. Once the state DCA issues its final order, Volusia County has 30 days to appeal the order to court. So this project could drag on for at least another year of legal arguments. Volusia officials would not comment on their next move to the Palatka Daily News. This battle over a potato farm has dragged on for more than three and a half years now. The Florida Department of Community Affairs has already approved Putnam County’s request for a land use change. The state can accept the court ruling, or reject it. It can also be forwarded to the Governor’s office and his Cabinet for a final decision. The citizen’s fighting this case can also take the case to the District Court of Appeals. Volusia County, or the Lake Crescent Citizens for Responsible Growth can appeal a ruling if they don’t like it. The citizens appealed this case earlier, and the court ruled in their favor — that Putnam County could not approve this plan without a zoning change. So Putnam County had to start the process again, and this time got state approval for a land use change. Volusia County and the neighbors challenged Putnam county, and sent the case to the Administrative Law Judge. The state does not have the money to widen the two lane Route 17, and Putnam County officials are relying on tax dollars to help pay for bigger sewer lines and power lines to the site. Sprawl-Busters first reported on this distribution center project on May 30, 2006, when we noted that a real estate consultant representing Wal-Mart had threatened homeowners in Crescent City that if they didn’t sell an easement or right of way onto their property to make way for the Wal-Mart Distribution Center, that the retailer was prepared to ask Putnam County officials to use eminent domain to get their land. As soon as that story hit the media, Wal-Mart headquarters quickly apologized to the neighbors. “We sincerely apologize for the tone of those letters and do not condone the actions and representations made by this third-party consultant,” Wal-Mart said. This project was first announced in late 2005 for a 230-acre site. The original plan ran into legal problems from neighbors and from Volusia County. Wal-Mart had to withdraw its original proposal for a planned unit development (PUD), and resubmit it for a standard state review process. The state’s Department of Community Affairs initially raised concerns about the traffic impacts. Wal-Mart says the D.C. will generate 262 trucks entering and leaving the center every day, or 95,630 truck trips per year. Car trips would total 602 daily trips in and out. Readers are urged to email the Chair of the Volusia County Commissioners, Frank Bruno, at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Bruno, I am writing to thank Volusia County for challenging the Wal-Mart distribution center, and I urge you to appeal Judge Canter’s ruling, and appeal the final DCA order if necessary. Wal-Mart has been fishing in Florida for the largest free deal it can hook, and state taxpayers are the ones who will swallow the bait. In light of recent federal bail outs — it looks like Putnam County is following the welfare handout example with Wal-Mart, a company that had more than $13.4 billion in profits last year. Wal-Mart’s smaller competitors will never get roads built for them, or offers of special tax deals. But Wal-Mart will use such deals to proceed to put their smaller competitors out of business. That’s how the ‘free’ market works in Putnam County. A company with Wal-Mart’s resources does not need subsidies from Florida taxpayers. DCA should not support bailing out Wal-Mart. This project is a kick in the teeth to local residents who just want to enjoy their homes in peace and quiet, buffered from this huge industrial use. This project is just too big, and is located along a very weak transportation corridor. Converting agricultural land to heavy industrial use as a truck terminal is a betrayal to all the people who bought homes and raised their families in that area. Stay with the fight. This is a bad economic deal for taxpayers, and a terrible land use decision. Volusia County should battle this project right to the end.”