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2007-10-24
Tarpon Springs, FL. Wal-Mart Still Battling Two Years, Eight Months Later

With clear sailing, a Wal-Mart permitting process can be done in three months or less. But in many communities, local citizens groups have slowed Wal-Mart's progress to a turtle's pace. Take Tarpon Springs, Florida, where Wal-Mart knew they had to move out the gopher tortoises on a site they chose to build on. But they found out they also had to move out a bunch of citizens who stood in their way. On January 19, 2005 the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to approve an enormous Wal-Mart development on the Anclote River. The site plan included a 24 hour SuperCenter on nearly 24 acres, 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. By one vote, the most contentious battle in the history of Tarpon Springs was launched, that has now stretched out over two years and eight months. A citizens group called the Friends of the Anclote River has been swimming upstream against this project from the very outset. A group called the Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs took the city to court for approving the supercenter project. In March of 2006 a three judge panel in the 6th. Circuit Court for Pinellas County ruled against the Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs, and the group, running out of funds, had to end their legal challenge. But Wal-Mart was involved in a legal challenge to the site plan from shortly after the site plan was approved until May 7, 2007, when the court granted summary judgment on a lawsuit brought by a citizen abutter against Wal-Mart and the City. But the battle did not end in court. This week, the Friends sent Sprawl-Busters a press release that Wal-Mart is coming back in on October 26th with a revised site plan. "The City of Tarpon Springs' Technical Review Committee (TRC) will consider a revised Site Plan submitted by Wal-Mart for a Supercenter on the Anclote River," the Friends write. "The Friends of the Anclote River and various concerned residents of Tarpon Springs will argue at the meeting that the meeting itself is inappropriate at this time, and that the proposed revised Site Plan cannot be approved by the TRC. This is not the first time Wal-Mart has submitted a revised Site Plan to the City of Tarpon Springs. Wal-Mart also submitted a revised Site Plan approximately 1 year ago, in September 2006. Each time revisions are proposed to an approved Site Plan, the City's Land Development Code requires that those revisions be deemed "major" or "minor" based on criteria provided in the Code. A minor change can be approved by the TRC, while a major change must be reviewed by the City's Planning & Zoning Board and then approved by the City Commission, just as the original Site Plan was. City Planning & Zoning Director claimed that last year's revisions were only "minor," while the Friends of the Anclote River and numerous concerned residents of Tarpon Springs contended that they were major. At the time, the City publicly stated that the proper course of action for those who disagreed with the City's decision was to appeal it to the City's Board of Adjustment. Several residents did just that. The City's attorney, wrote at the time that 'the most reasonable position is that the appeal must be resolved before the TRC can review the site plan since the appeal will decide whether the TRC should review the site plan.' Following this logical legal opinion, TRC review of the proposed revised Site Plan was temporarily put on hold. However, the issue was made moot when Wal-Mart withdrew its revised Site Plan only days before the appeal was scheduled to be heard, stating that they planned to make even more revisions to the approved Site Plan and resubmit 'within the next couple of weeks.' Now, almost a year later, Wal-Mart has indeed submitted a new revised Site Plan, with even more revisions than the previously submitted revised Site Plan. Once again, city staff has claimed that the proposed revisions are "minor" and scheduled the revised Site Plan for TRC review. Several residents have again notified the City that they intend to appeal this decision within the 60-day timeframe allowed by the City's Code. This time, however, the City's lawyer has inexplicably decided to let TRC review proceed anyway, despite the fact -- noted last year by the attorney -- that this TRC review could be rendered unnecessary or moot by the pending appeal to the City's Board of Adjustment. 'Holding this meeting before finding out if it's even appropriate or allowed to do so is a waste of taxpayers' money,' said Dory Larsen, a member of the Friends of the Anclote River. 'It also shows that the City has no faith in its own Board of Adjustment to decide the issue.' In addition to the pending appeal, the TRC review is precluded by the fact that the one-year Certificate of Concurrency issued back in January 2005 -- vouching that the proposed Supercenter will not have an unacceptable impact on roads (traffic) and other public facilities -- has now expired, and the revised Site Plan cannot be approved without a new, valid Certificate of Concurrency. The City's lawyer, however, has claimed that the Development Agreement signed by Wal-Mart and the City, although it never mentions the Certificate of Concurrency, somehow extends its validity for up to 10 years. 'This baseless decision means that the traffic study for the project conducted in 2004 will be considered valid until 2015 -- despite changes in existing traffic patterns and City standards,' said Helen Gladwin, another member of the Friends of the Anclote River. 'The City seems to be bending over backward to get this Wal-Mart built, and we think it's totally inappropriate.'" On October 19th, the Tarpon Springs Acting City Manager wrote a memo to the TRC Committee saying the October 26th hearing will proceed. "There is absolutely no valid reason that has been presented to alter our course of action... my decision has been made."


What you can do: In a memo to the Mayor, the city's attorney says that Wal-Mart and the city reached a land development contract in 2005, and that Wal-Mart has ten years to complete the project and obtain a certificate of occupancy provided it makes the necessary development submissions and proposals and diligently proceeds with construction. The city attorney also says the TRC can continue with its hearings on the minor site plan review, even though the 'minor' designation is being appealed. "It is my opinion that it is up to the discretion of the administrative official making the decision to decide whether to proceed with the decision or wait pending an appeal to the Board of Adjustment," the attorney writes. This project could end up back in court again. The real winners in Tarpon Springs have been the lawyers representing both sides of this fight. Readers are urged to contact the Mayor of Tarpon Springs, Beverly Billiris. You can call the Mayor at 727-938-3711, or email her at bbilliris@ci.tarpon-springs.fl.us. Tell the Mayor, "The changes to the Wal-Mart site plan are major changes, not minor. Don't force citizens to spend more money on legal challenges to this terrible location for a superstore. Tarpon Springs doesn't need a Wal-Mart, You've got one 4 miles away in Palm Harbor. Leave the Anclote River and the gopher tortoises alone." For more history on this project, go to www.friendsoftheancloteriver.com










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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