The city of Mary Esther(pop. 4,200) is located in Northwest Florida, in between Fort Walton Beach and Hurlburt Field. The city is only 61 years old, and sits on 2.5 square miles of land. But it was big enough to catch Wal-Mart’s attention, and since it became public that the giant retailer wanted to locate there, the city has not been the same. On Monday, July 9th, the controversy of a supercenter in Mary Esther came to a head, when the city’s Local Planning Agency (LPA) took up the matter of rezoning land to allow a Wal-Mart to be built along Wright Parkway on Highway 98 — on a site that straddled Mary Esther and Fort Walton. Brenda Hall, who has been battling this proposal, prepared the following report for Sprawl-Busters: “Our city was designed as a bedroom community and has just under 1,700 households. We do have a vibrant commercial district situated in the city’s center. There is a larger Wal-Mart located just 2.3 miles away and Wal-Mart abandoned a store located just 1.2 miles from the proposed site about 7 years ago. That store was in a commercial district adjoining our city limits and our commercial district. Wal-Mart approached our city manager about the possibility of citing a new ‘super-store’ on a 10.6 acre piece of property that straddles both Mary Esther (residential zoning) and Ft. Walton Beach (commercial zoning). City officials allowed Wal-Mart to use city chambers to present their proposal to groups of residents. Quietly Wal-Mart held the first meeting with only a few residents on Kingston Court, who backed up to the property. The second citizen meeting was designed to be a ‘Sound’ side meeting, but by that time, the word had leaked, and the meeting was packed with opposition. We began a petition drive designed to fight not only this proposal, but any that did not fit the current zoning of the parcel. We attended that meeting in force and let the council know that the greater part of the citizens were opposed. We obtained a copy of the Wal-Mart proposal including the land survey map and building plan that we had scanned onto a disk. We asked people to write letters to the editor and I wrote a ‘con’ column to stand next to a ‘pro’ column written by the Wal-Mart lawyers. We started to research the city’s comprehensive plan, ordinances, and land use plan.We received a copy of the city’s development coordinator/code-enforcer’s staff report compiled for the Local Development Agency (LPA) hearing and copies of the city’s maps that were relevant. We compiled a Citizen Opposition Report and a power-point presentation in response to both the city report and the Wal-Mart proposal. We called everyone on the petitions to make sure they knew about the hearing and were there 30 minutes early. At the hearing, we had people stationed at the doors offering large red plastic plates to people to write NO on and sign their names and carry into the hearing. We split the delivery of the report up between 2 of us and presented it (including the power-point )to the LPA. We based our zoning argument on the issue of property rights. Yes, the current owners have a right to develop their property, but not at the expense of their neighbor’s quality of life or property values. The Mary Esther parcel is zoned for single-family residential use only – five units per acre, not town homes, not condominiums, and certainly not commercial businesses. The current owners knew this when they purchased the parcel two years ago. The residents of adjoining properties and neighborhoods bought or established their homes within those parameters and considerations. If the Mary Esther City Council was to change the zoning for this owner and Wal-Mart was to decide to drop their bid, the parcel would be open to almost any type of development. We have the right to defend our property rights. Our safety concerns center on the direct affect that a 24 hour a day, big-box retailer would have on our schools. The development proposal calls for the main entrance for both delivery trucks and shoppers to fall in front of the school zone on Wright Parkway. This is a city street with bike paths; it is also a “no truck traffic” route. We have literally thousands of students, parents, and teachers who not only travel to and from classes there, but also utilize facilities on both sides of the street during the day, in the evenings, and on weekends. Our environmental concerns center on not only the sensitive wetlands and creek areas and the storm water run-off issues, but also on the anticipated increase to the elevation of the site. A flowing creek crosses the back third of the Mary Esther side and then turns to run south close to the boundary line. The site is spotted with wetlands. These elements, along with the plant species and soil profiles, play a key role in the hydrologic cycle that recycles and refreshes our water systems and helps filter our storm waters. The current owners knew that this parcel contained these vulnerable areas and that they are protected by federal and state laws. The entire site falls within the FEMA Storm Surge Zone. There is also the issue of the hurricane waters that have breeched this site over and over again. When floodwaters from the Sound reach the proposed berm, they will be directed to either side, flooding areas that have not had a problem in the past. New potential storm flooding should not be imposed on one property owner by another; this should be a concern for every homeowner along the Gulf Coast. An imaginative residential development could be designed to co-exist with it’s neighbors and the fragile environment.” The city expected such a large turnout, that they held the meeting at the First Baptist Church. The hearing continued for three hours. “I haven’t heard a great deal of compelling evidence as to make me change my mind,” said LPA member Ron Stearns. Member Lee Griffin added, “I’m neither for nor against Wal-Mart – I’m for Mary Esther. And LPA member Karlene Gentile said her concern was protecting the wetlands on the property. “We need to protect our environment as much as possible.” The LPA proceeded to vote 5-0 against the rezoning.
Wal-Mart now has little time left to lobby the city council. They will, no doubt, be organizing phone calls and turnout for the City Council meeting. But opponents have vowed to carry their fight to the next level. The LPA in Mary Esther is made up of the same members as the City Council. So last Monday’s vote is seen as a good indicator of how the Council will vote on rezoning when it comes up later this month. As Brenda Hall says, “We understand that at the city council’s special legislative meeting, only new information pertaining only to the zoning will be presented. Citizens with something new to add to the dialogue will have a chance to speak. We will be prepared for that meeting and hope to see the same kind of turn-out as at the LPA hearing.” Readers are urged to let the City Council in Mary Esther know of your support for their vote against rezoning. Send an email today to: [email protected], with the message: “Please tell Mayor McLemore and Council members to stand firm against rezoning for a Wal-Mart supercenter. It’s the wrong place and the wrong use for that property.”