The battle over a Wal-Mart supercenter on the banks of the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs, Florida will mark its 4 year point this coming January. 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. For almost 4 years now, The Friends of Anclote has kept up their battle to protect their river. “That’s our main concern,” a spokeswoman for the group stated. “It’s a river of special significance and state agencies have not taken that to heart.” 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 of the Anclote River 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. At least 90 people showed up for the hearing, and more than one-third of them asked to testify. Only one person from the public got to speak, because most of the meeting was spent in legal wrangling. Wal-Mart’s lawyer tried to get two members of the board to step down from the case, because they had spoken publicly against the plan. Wal-Mart testified that its huge store would make traffic safer, and would not harm the wetland or the Anclote River. 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. The Planning and Zoning Board will have one more meeting on October 20th — one day before the City Commission will get the case that has more than three years of history behind it. 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 Commissioners set aside three days to hear from the public, because they will have almost no time to wade through the testimony and deliberations of their Planning and Zoning board. Since the beginning of this project, Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris has told her constituents that a Wal-Mart superstore on the Anclote is 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. But one of her colleagues, Commissioner Peter Nehr, told Channel 10: “If it costs us $30,000 or $40,000, I think it’s a fight that would have been worth for the city to pay for to save the heritage, the culture that we in Tarpon Springs are known for.” There are15 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 contact Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris at (727) 938-3711, or email her 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. 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. Don’t let their legal intimidation bend your rules. You promote Tarpon Springs for its beautiful saltwater bayous. Keep Tarpon Springs unspoiled by Wal-Mart, and push them away from the Anclote River.”