On January 17, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that a Wal-Mart battle in Tarpon Springs, Florida reached its three year mark — and the giant retailer had suffered yet another setback. Three years prior, 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 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. In June of 2006, local resident Chris Hrabovsky alleged that federal wetlands regulators at the Army Corps of Engineers had worked in lockstep with Wal-Mart to ensure the retailer received necessary permits. Hrabovsky contended that the permits were issued in violation of federal wetlands conservation laws. He sued the city, but lost his appeal in court. The Friends of Anclote 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 testified that the changes were minor, but opponents said the changes were major. Minor changes could have been approved by the city staff — but major changes require public hearings and a vote by the City Commission. 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. This week, eight months after the Board of Adjustment set them back, Wal-Mart was back before the Tarpon Springs Planning and Zoning Board. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Wal-Mart got to talk — but not the citizens. The newspaper said the meeting “barely made it out of the starting blocks.” 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.
The City Commissioners will have almost no time to sort through the testimony and deliberations of Planning and Zoning. But that doesn’t seem to both the Commissioners very much. One Commissioner, Chris Alahouzos, told the St. Petersburg Times, “I was hoping they would finish and make a decision, so they could give us a recommendation and give us the opportunity to read the minutes so we’d know exactly what took place.” But Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris says the last minute review by Planning is not an issue. “Could I do it? Yes, I could. Does it put more pressure on us? Yes, but it is doable,” she told the newspaper. Commissioner Robin Saenger was also not troubled by the shorter response time. “The burden is going to fall to staff and I think they can get it done,” The newspaper quoted the city’s Manager as saying his staff would “burn the midnight oil” to prepare recommendations for the Commission. Back in January of 2005, Mayor Beverley Billiris told the media 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 are no less than 15 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. One day turn-around from your Planning and Zoning Board is not sufficient time to make a decision. Be more deliberate — give your citizens a chance to be heard. Wal-Mart has wasted three 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. You promote Tarpon Springs for its beautiful saltwater bayous. Keep Tarpon Springs unspoiled by Wal-Mart, and push them away from the Anclote River.”