Neptune Beach, Florida said No, but Wal-Mart doesn’t like to accept rejection. So the company has resorted to legal pressure to push city officials to the negotiating table. On June 7, 2006, Sprawl-Busters brought you the story of citizens battling Wal-Mart in Neptune Beach. Five months later, the Florida Times-Union reports that the City Council turned down the superstore project, but now has agreed to negotiate before a special master with Wal-Mart to try to reach a settlement. The City’s Attorney recommended to the Council that they go along with Wal-Mart’s request to submit the dispute to a “special master hearing”, which will take place Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. On September 11th, the City Council voted down Wal-Mart’s application to build a 117,000 s.f supercenter on Atlantic Boulevard. Wal-Mart’s attorneys requested the special master, who is a mediator agreed to by both parties, to try and avoid a lawsuit. The mediator presides over a hearing and tries to broker a settlement. Wal-Mart has made it clear that they will still seek to get their store built in Neptune Beach. “We’re trying to get our appropriate development approval, which fits to a ‘T’ to their [the city’s] code,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer told the newspaper. Florida’s Land Use and Environmental Dispute Resolution Act allows parties to seek an out-of-court settlement in private property disputes. The law says property owners can seek “relief from a governmental decision that unfairly or unreasonably restricts the landowner’s use of [the] property.” The Neptune Beach decision did not do that, and did not leave the property owner without further economic options. Wal-Mart’s plan involved the demolition of the existing vacant buildings where Food Lion, Scotty’s and a Big Lots outlet store once stood. The city’s taxpayers and Wal-Mart will split the cost of the mediation. Under the mediation rules, only abutting property owners will be allowed to participate in the proceedings.
Neptune Beach officials do not want to go to court because it will cost them tens of thousands of dollars to defend their action. Wal-Mart thus can use the threat of litigation to put pressure on officials to try to settle out of court. But Wal-Mart goes into the mediation with the simple goal of coming out of the process with what they lost during the normal process — their superstore.
Local residents who are opposed to Wal-Mart are being stranded on the beach, because they have no legal seat at the table in this matter. The group Save Our Beach Town probably thought they were finished on September 11th when the city ruled against Wal-Mart, but they have found out that fighting Wal-Mart is no stroll down the beach. Local residents should be flooding the local newspapers with letters to the editor, and pressuring local officials to reject any compromise deal that brings the unwanted supercenter to their community. Ironically, the taxpayers of Neptune Beach are paying for half the mediation costs, that could lead to the store they don’t want. For more information about this fight, go to http://www.saveourbeachtown.com/ and search Newsflash by “Neptune Beach.”