Regulators and birds. Those two obstacles stand in Wal-Mart’s way in the community of Tarpon Springs, Florida. On October 9, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart has been swimming for nearly four years against the current to build a Wal-Mart supercenter on the banks of the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs. 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. One vote made the difference. 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. Four years later, The Friends of Anclote has kept up their battle to protect their river — and now Wal-Mart appears to be drowning. “It’s a river of special significance and state agencies have not taken that to heart,” the Friends have said. 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 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. In January of 2008, roughly three months after the TRC vote, the citizens won their point. The Tarpon Springs Board of Adjustment decided that Wal-Mart was, in fact, requesting major changes to its plan. Wal-Mart was left 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. Wal-Mart chose to go back to the Commissioners. At the end of September, 2008, Wal-Mart was back before the Tarpon Springs Planning and Zoning Board. The Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs presented an urban planner who argued that the project would pose dangers to drivers and pedestrians and destroy the wetlands. On October 7th, the City Commission voted to determine whether Wal-Mart’s city-approved plan have lapsed. The Commission will meet October 21,22 and 23, to take public testimony on Wal-Mart’s plan. The Commissioners could vote down the site plan. They must decide if Wal-Mart’s “certificate of concurrency” has expired. The City’s lawyer insists that the certificate is still in effect. This certificate is critical, because it means the project complies with the city’s growth management plan and municipal land use regulations. The city attorney says the site plan approved in January, 2005 is still valid, and that Wal-Mart can sue the city if the Commissioners turn them down. But Wal-Mart opponents charge that because Wal-Mart did no construction work on the site within the first year of the project — the certificate has expired. The city’s lawyer maintains that the site plan is still valid, but the Concerned Citizens say Wal-Mart needs to apply for a new site plan that conforms to changes that have occurred in the city’s land development code regarding wetlands. The Planning staff say that Wal-Mart and the city entered into a Land Improvement Agreement in April of 2005, which gives them a 10 year vesting period for the Certificate of Concurrency. But on October 16th Wal-Mart hit another rock in the river. The Planning and Zoning Board voted to recommend the City Commission declare the site plan for the Wal-Mart, now three years old, no longer valid. That upset a small group of Wal-Mart fans who showed up wearing “Wal-Mart Yes!” stickers (a gift, no doubt, from the retailer). But it was ‘Wal-Mart No!’ instead. If that sentiment holds up at the City Commission, Wal-Mart will have to do back to the beginning, and wash away four years of time and expense. The Commissioners will have their chance to wade into the waters next week. Wal-Mart admitted to the Suncoast News that the company had done a mass mailing to registered voters in Tarpon Springs, urging them to come to the City Hall hearing. Part of Wal-Mart’s standard enticement these days is to offer their supporters dinner at a local restaurant before they headed for the Planning Board. It is hoped that the meal was good for Wal-Mart supporters, because the meeting was not.
The Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs and the Friends of the Anclote River listed out their mantra of concerns about the huge, 205,000 s.f. superstore. In addition to the list of environmental issues, the group had a new ally in their battle — two bald eagles nesting on the property. The eagle’s nest is located in a pine tree less than 200 feet from the walls of the planned Wal-Mart supercenter. The tree would fall in the store’s parking lot. “We’ve been aware since spring that there are eagles on the site,” a Wal-Mart spokesperson admitted to the St. Petersburg Times. “We have an environmental engineer who monitors the site on a regular basis. This isn’t part of the city’s purview. Once we have site plan approval and all the permits that will be required to start clearing and construction, then you begin working with the appropriate agencies to make sure you protect the nest and the eagles.” But Mayor Beverly Billiris may have found her savior in a pair of birds. “Maybe the eagle will settle the whole thing,” she told the Times. “I think nature will be the one that will have the last say in it. That’s almost comical.” Bald eagles are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. These laws prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests or eggs. According to the newspaper, the state of Florida has a significant amount of rules governing the management of bald eagles. A state official said no construction can take place within 660 feet of the nest during nesting season without a state permit. Since the beginning of this project, Tarpon Springs Mayor Billiris has told her constituents that a Wal-Mart superstore on the Anclote was inevitable. Billiris told the media in 2005 that “she didn’t want to approve the plan” for a Wal-Mart supercenter, but added, “Wal-Mart has a legal right to build on the site,” and she didn’t want to spend taxpayers money defending against a lawsuit. There are 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 email Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris 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. Now that Wal-Mart is back before the Commissioners, I urge you to vote against their plan, and support the vote of your Planning and Zoning Board. Wal-Mart has wasted nearly four 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. Wal-Mart did no work on their site, and their certificate should be voided. Now besides the Planning Board, you have a couple of new objectors to the site. Your rescue has literally come from the sky. Protect your bald eagles, let Wal-Mart make its nest somewhere else.”