On December 27, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was locked into a bitter battle with Hernando County officials over a site in Brooksville, Florida, and a mediation process had led nowhere. “The mediation ended in an impasse,” the Assistant County Attorney told Hernando Today. The next step would have been taking the dispute to a Magistrate, who would conduct an independent assessment of the dispute, and come up with a decision on what should happen with the property. That decision, however, would have been nonbinding on the parties, and the case likely would have wound up in court. Wal-Mart charged that county officials violated the rules on quasi-judicial proceedings, which prohibit officials from making pre-conceived judgments. The county commission in May denied Wal-Mart’s request to build on the Barclay parcel. Commissioners said the store would create too much traffic along Barclay and create potential safety problems for nearby schools and subdivisions. Wal-Mart then asked for a mediator under Florida law, but that road led nowhere. “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,” County Commissioner David Russell said. Apparently Wal-Mart must have been listening, because the giant retailer gave the residents of Brooksville a New Year present: No Supercenter on Barclay. Wal-Mart announced December 28th that is was dropping its pursuit of the site, and would no take any further legal action against the county. That was the good news. The bad news is the retailer says it is actively negotiating to propose a second site on County Line Road. “If there’s a possibility of coming back and finding a site and working with the county, we’d rather do that than take it to the legal realm,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. That was sweet music to the ears of the United Communities Save Our Neighborhood, a citizen’s group set up by local homeowners’ associations to block the development of Wal-Mart or any other big box store near their homes. United Communities told Hernando Today that they were prepared to “ask the people of this county if they wanted to support the other three (Wal-Mart) stores” in Hernando if the retailer kept up its legal challenge. “As far I’m concerned, they made a wise business decision and we’re happy with it,” a spokesman for the citizens’ group said.
Wal-Mart often approaches a community with at least a primary and a secondary site under consideration. If the prime site bombs, they activate the second tier site. Sometimes they have a third of fourth location in their pocket as well. In the Brooksville case, the protracted battle actually may end up favoring Wal-Mart. By legally battering the County Commissioners, and making it look like they were prejudiced against the retailer, when they switch from the prime site to a backup site, it gives the Commissioners a chance to show they can play fair with Wal-Mart. That’s exactly what seems to be the political dynamic in Brooksville. The residents along Barclay Road have won their battle against Wal-Mart — but their victory will soon be another neighborhood’s nightmare. Hernando County’s Chief Planner has already pointed out that the second site on County Line Road is zoned “planned development” and so would be more appropriate for a Wal-Mart. And the public official that Wal-Mart attacked for being prejudiced, Commissioner David Russell, was quoted as saying right after Wal-Mart abandoned its legal fight, “I think it’s commendable on Wal-Mart’s part to acknowledge the community’s valid concerns about the location at Barclay,” noting that he thinks the County Line Road parcel has the potential to be a “much more appropriate site.” This way, the County Commissioner can look good, because he stood up to Wal-Mart, and the retailer can get its superstore. Commissioner Russell told the newspaper, “Sometimes you just have to speak out and do what’s right. I think the signal was sent to Wal-Mart that we were serious.” Readers are urged to email County Commissioner David Russell at: [email protected], with the following message: “Commissioner Russell, thanks for standing up to Wal-Mart at Barclay. Now is not the time to cave into their pressure on County Line Road. You know the area does not need another grocery store, and the Wal-Mart project is too big for County Line Road too. Make them shrink the project down. If you let them build on County Line Road, they end up winning, and Brooksville loses. Don’t save one neighborhood by sacrificing another.”