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2007-03-14
Neptune Beach, FL. Wal-Martís Litigation Against City Pays Off Big

This story begins in the context of a city with a 60,000 s.f. cap on commercial buildings, and it goes downhill from there. In September, 2006 the city council in Neptune, Florida voted to reject a 117,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter on 14 acres of land where an empty mall now stands. But under the legal pressure of a lawsuit from the developer and Wal-Mart, the city agreed to negotiate before a "special master" to try to reach a settlement. The city had spent $93,000 fighting Wal-Mart's project. About $74,000 had been spent on the city's attorney, but another $18,000 has been spent on consultants and a traffic engineer. Fast forward to the end of February, 2007. The City Council voted 4-1 to accept a recommended settlement from the Special Magistrate that will allow Wal-Mart to build a Supercenter on Atlantic Boulevard after all. One Councilwoman told the Florida Times Union she found it "despicable" that Wal-Mart hurts the character of small communities, but said she couldn't risk taking the city to a lengthy and potentially costly lawsuit if the city rejected the proposed settlement. "We have already spent $100,000 in [mediation] ... I love this community too much to place it in jeopardy of a $1 million or $2 million or $3 million lengthy lawsuit or litigation," she said. "I wish I could say, 'No, I'm not going to support this.' But for my community, I don't feel like I have any other choice but to support this." The settlement from the Special Magistrate contains 16 conditions, including a provision that Wal-Mart pay the city $300,000 for its legal costs. The Magistrate also threw in a stop light for good measure, and told Wal-Mart to "change the aesthetics" of its store, by using more "earth tones" on its outside walls. The only voice against this "settlement" was Councilman John Weldon, who noted, "This settlement disregards the substantial negative impact that this development will have on both traffic circulation and general quality of life in Neptune Beach. The monetary contributions called for in this settlement set a particularly bad precedent for future development applications." Wal-Mart's lawyer told the newspaper, "Obviously, we're pleased with the outcome and Wal-Mart is excited about the opportunity to serve its customers at the Beaches." The Wal-Mart will be located in mall that now must be torn down to make way for the superstore. Many residents in Neptune Beach were appalled by the way their City Council caved-in to financial pressures. One anti-Wal-Mart activist told Sprawl-Busters, "In mediation sessions, Wal-Mart was approved by the mediator with a token set of give-aways to Neptune Beach, which in no way come close to remedying the damage this store will do to our town. The out-of-town owner bought the shopping center in 2001; he had long-time on-going businesses filling the entire shopping center except for one store; the owner never put one cent into updating the shopping center or bettering our community, but invested only the minimal that he was forced to do in maintaining the buildings and grounds; and that same owner chose to evict all the existing businesses in favor of a single, big money Wal-Mart lease, using the power of Wal-Mart mega-dollars to support his efforts. Our little, primarily residential town will not be able to support this behemoth without raising property taxes, meaning all of us will bear the cost of servicing Wal-Mart. Adding another stoplight as ordered by the mediator to serve this Wal-Mart on an already failed roadway will mean traffic will be even more horrible than it already is. When Wal-Mart decided that this was the perfect place to abuse and take advantage of our small city, they also decided not to build a Wal-Mart in a perfect spot about 3 miles away in a huge commercial development center that has roads and infrastructure to support it. And there are already 2 Wal-Marts within 5 miles of this new Wal-Mart site - how many more do we need? At great cost, our city hired a land use consultant and land use attorney to protect us against just such inappropriate development, and our own city attorney also reviewed the laws, and all said they were sufficient to protect us. I suggest that other small cities enact a law that specifically restricts against oversized business development, stating a specific square foot limit on buildings so there is no ambiguity in the law that can be exploited by less-than-honorable business investors, especially in those states which have excessively pro-development state laws like those in Florida."

What you can do: Apparently the 60,000 s.f. cap on building size in Neptune Beach was not finalized when Wal-Mart first submitted its plans in April of 2006, so it did not apply to this project. In this case, the city may have had a very strong legal case to win in court, but the cost of litigation seems to have decided the matter, not the merits. Residents in Neptune Beach who were counting on their elected officials to protect the character of their community, got a Wal-Mart supercenter instead. The "mediation" process, as Sprawl-Busters predicted in an earlier story, gained nothing for city residents, and everything for Wal-Mart. One of the Councilwomen pathetically summed up the outcome of this year-long battle. "We spent $100,000 going up against a giant," she said, "and thankfully we got something out of it -- certainly, a better-looking building. We'll probably have the best looking Wal-Mart in Duval County." And the ugliest public process local residents have ever seen. For earlier stories, search Newsflash by "Neptune Beach."










 
 
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