On May 12, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had run into a Wal of opposition in Brooksville, Florida. The Hernando County Commission voted unanimously on May 9th to turn down a Wal-Mart’s proposal for a 4th supercenter in the county, this one on Barclay Avenue in Brooksville. The Commissioners ruled that the site plan was too close to nearby residential subdivisions, and only 1,500 feet from a Middle School. Commissioner David Russell was quoted by the St. Petersburg Times as saying, “We’re here to make subjective decisions based on the facts we heard today.” That comment prompted Wal-Mart to appeal the County’s decision to a Special Magistrate. And if they do not prevail before the Magistrate, the retailer is prepared to sue the county in court, Wal-Mart’s lawyer said. Wal-Mart sent a letter to the county, quoting Russell’s full comment, “we’re here to analyze things not only objectively but also subjectively … . That’s our right.” Wal-Mart claims this remark demonstrates that Russell was biased when he voted to reject the store. Wal-Mart argues that Russell and fellow Commissioner Chris Kingsley revealed their bias when they were quoted in newspapers as saying they planned to vote against the company’s request before the meeting took place. Wal-Mart concludes that the Commissioners’ decision was “unreasonable, capricious and contrary to the established Florida law.” Wal-Mart claims it has a right to build the 185,000-s.f. store, because it is zoned for commercial use. The property is part of a larger development approved in 1982 — before the county created a comprehensive plan. Wal-Mart says the property is exempt therefore from comp plan requirements. Neighbors testified that the site was too close to residential areas and schools, and that it would cause major traffic congestion on Barclay Avenue. By turning to a Magistrate, Wal-Mart has indicated it wants to work out a solution that prevents further litigation. “The special magistrate will explore whether we can come up with approach to resolve the matter,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer said. “Our hope is to not go to court.” The Magistrate’s job is to produce a report analyzing the arguments from both sides. The Commission would then vote on accepting or rejecting the report. Wal-Mart could then use the Magistrate’s report as evidence in court if it decided to sue the county. This week, five months after deciding to go the Magistrate route, the retailer, landowner and county are no closer to any agreement than they were last summer. “The mediation ended in an impasse,” Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben told Hernando Today.
A special master hearing is the next step in the process. Tallahassee, Florida attorney Carlos Alvarez will conduct an independent assessment of the dispute, hearing from all three stakeholders. Any decision Alvarez makes will be legally nonbinding. Wal-Mart continues to tell the media that county officials violated the rules on quasi-judicial proceedings, which prohibit making pre-conceived judgments. Even after Wal-Mart’s threat to go to court, Commissioner Russell told the St. Petersburg Times that he would not vote for any compromise that results in a Wal-Mart supercenter on Barclay. “My position hasn’t softened one bit,” Russell said. “If Wal-Mart wants to be a good community partner they need to listen to the community leaders …. I don’t believe that location is suitable for a Wal-Mart Supercenter or any super store.” Readers are urged to email Commissioner Russell at [email protected] with this message: “I applaud you for standing up to Wal-Mart during the mediation process. Brooksville does not need a supercenter at that location, and at that size.” Russell was elected to the Commission in 2006, and will serve until November of 2010. So Wal-Mart has to live with him for at least another three years.