After four years of pushing — Wal-Mart has given up the battle for a superstore-by-the-river. On October 17, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had been swimming for nearly four years against the current to build a supercenter on the banks of the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Yesterday, activists in Tarpon Springs were celebrating victory over the giant retailer, as word spread that Wal-Mart was folding up its tent. “Congratulations everyone!” began one email from the Friends of the Anclote River. “This is the victory we have been fighting for over the past 4 years! Despite Wal-Mart’s refusal to rule out another attempt to build this store at some point down the road, the word is that they are in the process of formally withdrawing their site plan application from the City. Therefore, if they ever do come back, they’ll be starting the whole process all over – and that seems very unlikely. Thanks to everyone for all the hard work!” It’s been a long four years in Tarpon Springs. This case goes back to 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 River. 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. The Friends of Anclote kept up their battle to protect their river. “It’s a river of special significance and state agencies have not taken that to heart,” the Friends said. In August, 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit was suspended because of wetland destruction. In September, 2006 Wal-Mart submitted revised site plans to the city. Under community pressure, Wal-Mart submitted a second plan in October, 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, 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 city had to determine if Wal-Mart’s “certificate of concurrency” had expired. This certificate was critical, because it means the project complies with the city’s growth management plan and municipal land use regulations. The Concerned Citizens said Wal-Mart needed to apply for a new site plan that conforms to changes that have occurred in the city’s land development code regarding wetlands. On October 16, 2008, the Planning and Zoning Board voted to recommend the City Commission declare the site plan for the Wal-Mart, now three years old, was no longer valid. A few days later, the City Commission voted 3-2 that the concurrency certificate had expired. On Friday, November 21st, Wal-Mart folded. Back in 2005, Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris told the media “Wal-Mart has a legal right to build on the site.” She told the St. Petersburg Times this week that Wal-Mart was not selling the land — just backing off building plans for at least two years. The Mayor said that the weak economy was partly to blame, but added: the protests against the project probably played into Wal-Mart’s decision. Wal-Mart, as usual, did not want to close the door forever on the Anclote River. “We’ll monitor the environment in Tarpon Springs over the next few years and determine what we’ll do with the site,” a company spokesman said.
Mayor Billiris said Wal-Mart was unwilling to negotiate with the city or county on selling the land. “We could have looked at making it some kind of a preserve and protecting it forever,” the Mayor said. She told The Times she was just pleased that Wal-Mart did not sue the city. In a remarkably unnecessary admission, the Mayor said: “I think we’re incredibly lucky, very, very fortunate, with the evidence they had to sue us, that they have chosen not to take that avenue.” The city’s lawyer no doubt was appalled by such a statement. But local opponents did not feel lucky — they felt vindicated. They promised not to cease their vigilance. “Even if they’re waiting for the political winds to change, they have to understand that there are residents … that don’t want this type of development in Tarpon,” said Dory Larsen, president of Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs. The discovery of a bald eagle’s nest on the site just before its final city review was not helpful to Wal-Mart’s cause. In addition to the list of environmental issues, the citizens 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 Billiris may have found her savior in a pair of birds. “Maybe the eagle will settle the whole thing,” she told the Times last month. “I think nature will be the one that will have the last say in it. That’s almost comical.” A state official said no construction can take place within 660 feet of the nest during nesting season without a state permit. Readers are urged to email Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris at: [email protected] Tell the Mayor, “It’s hard to believe that you told the media that Wal-Mart had a good legal case against the city, and you were ‘lucky’ they didn’t pursue it in court. I would say the taxpayers of Tarpon Springs are lucky you stopped talking about this. Your idea of pursuing a land deal with Wal-Mart that would turn it into a preserve is where you should focus your energy going forward. Keep the public pressure on Wal-Mart to donate the land and protect the Anclote. You like to talk about Tarpon Springs as being ‘historic, picturesque, and unspoiled.’ You have a rare chance to keep it that way. You already have 5 Wal-Mart supercenters within 21 miles of your community. There is clearly no added value to your economy from this project. Protect your bald eagles, let Wal-Mart make its nest somewhere else. Turn the announcement this week from Wal-Mart into the start of an effort to get the company to donate the land to the city as a natural preserve.”