On December 12, 1999, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents of Bonita Springs, Florida had hammered Home Depot right where it hurts. The world’s largest home improvement chain did not get the desired zoning variance they sought to boost their existing store from 99,999 s.f. to 149,500 s.f. The Lee County commissioners voted 5-0 to reject the variance. Now its Wal-Mart’s turn to feel the heat. The Bonita Daily News reports this week that the Community Development office in Bonita Springs has rejected Wal-Mart’s plans to put a superstore just off Interstate 75. The superstore is part of a larger, 395,000 s.f. retail footprint being proposed by The Roberts Group. Unfortunately for The Roberts Group, the 68 acre parcel they chose is not zoned for commercial use, so the developer had to ask for a rezoning. Community Development staff choked over the level of traffic the huge project would generate along Bonita Beach Road. “It is going to take a combined effort from the state, the county, the city and the developers to come up with the funding to improve that Bonita Beach Road/I-75 intersection so the development can be allowed,” Mayor Jay Arend told the Daily News. But Wal-Mart’s plan is far from dead. The City Council gets the final say on this project, and in addition to the staff report, the city’s Zoning Advisory Board will get to submit a recommendation as well. Wal-Mart’s traffic engineer will attempt to rebut the city staff report, and show that traffic will improve through the addition of 12,000 to 14,000 new car trips per day. “I’m becoming very skeptical of the numbers we are getting from these developers,” one Councilman told the newspaper. “Traffic is a major concern for me, and I plan to ask them specific questions on how they will help fix the problems.” But a new Florida law may help developers overcome a bad traffic jam. The law says that if the developer is willing to help pay for improvements to the traffic network, the project should not be denied. “If they are working on fixing it, then we can’t deny them,” the Bonita Springs City Attorney said. City staff is suggesting that The Roberts Group be required to pay part of the cost of upgrading 4 roadways: Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Grande Drive, the I-75 interchange and Trade Way Drive. Wal-Mart would also be asked to pay for realigning the Bonita Beach Road/Bonita Grande Drive intersection.
The city of Bonita Springs, which calls itself the “Gateway to the Gulf,” is tossing in a bunch of other conditions for the rezoning that will irritate Wal-Mart, but not prove fatal. The city wants Wal-Mart to maintain 13 acres of open space, preserve all the gopher tortoises, fox squirrels, wading birds and alligators, and outfit its shopping carts with special electronic locks that renders them useless if they leave the property. The laws in Florida have been written to accommodate developers, not local residents or small businesses. Instead of fussing over electronic locks on shopping carts, Bonita Springs officials should be putting the locks in the zoning code, by capping the scale of retail buildings in their community. There are currently nine Wal-Mart stores — including 6 supercenters — within 20 miles of Bonita Springs, so there is no market need and no economic added value to this project. Readers are urged to contact Mayor Jay Arend and the city council at (239)-949-6262, or send them an email at [email protected], with this message: “Bonita Springs shoppers already have 9 Wal-Marts within 20 miles to choose from. The land The Roberts Group wants is not commercially zoned, and you are not mandated to rezone land for any developer. Roads are just one issue. Projects can be rejected because their scale and location is not compatible with your comprehensive plan, or with surrounding uses. Don’t let the lawyers tell you Bonita Springs has no choice. If you approve this plan, you will be the “Gateway to Sprawl.”