After more than a year of no visible activity, Wal-Mart has returned to Hernando County, Florida with a back-up site to end its legal stalemate with county officials. The retailer is trying to use the legal process to squeeze out another huge superstore — even though the second site is no better than the first — which drew strong, vocal community opposition. 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, who unanimously voted against the superstore, had 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 28, 2007 that is was dropping its pursuit of the site, and would not take any further legal action against the county. That was the good news. The bad news is the retailer said it was 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. The committee was made up of people from local homeowners’ associations, including Silverthorn, Pristine Place, The Oaks and Sterling Hill. Its focus was to block the development of a Wal-Mart or any other “Big Box” store near their Barclay Avenue homes. Residents testified that there would be unacceptable traffic congestion, posing a public safety to children at the Powell Middle School. 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. Despite this history, it appears that another Wal-Mart in Brooksville is a real possibility. The Barclay Avenue store may be dead, but Wal-Mart has used the mediation process to submit another location. The Tampa Tribune reports today that a year and a half after mediation started, Wal-Mart is submitting a settlement agreement to the Hernando County Commissioners which would allow the giant retailer to construct its fourth supercenter on 32-acres of land off of County Line Road. All Wal-Mart has to do is to give up any further lawsuit on the Barclay Road site. The superstore would be 185,000 s.f. and open 24 hours a day.
If the county commissioners accept this “alternative” Wal-Mart site as a way to end the legal threats, there would have to be traffic upgrades to the County Line road site, and the county’s master plan would have to be changed. Wal-Mart often approaches a community with at least a primary and a secondary site under consideration. If the prime site falls through, 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. 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 considered the County Line Road parcel had 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 last January, “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. Wal-Mart has stated its preference for 90,000 s.f. superstores — now is the time to scale down the store, and limit its operating hours. Their Barclay Avenue case against the County was legally weak, and the County does not have to accept a second location in recompense for the first inappropriate site. As you said last year: ‘Sometimes you have to speak out and do what’s right.’ This is one of those times.”