TARPON SPRINGS — What has been a fierce battle between Wal-Mart officials planning to build a new supercenter and Tarpon Springs residents bent on preserving land on the Anclote River just got more complicated.
Nature has thrown a punch of its own.
A bald eagle pair has built a sturdy and federally protected nest on the property.
For the birds, it's an ideal site: a live pine tree with branches that twist under the nest to support it, a river with clear water to fish and not much disturbance nearby.
But it's less than 200 feet from the walls of a planned nearly 5-acre Wal-Mart supercenter. On site plans, the nesting tree appears to be in the store's parking lot, and slated for removal.
Tuesday, a Wal-Mart official said this is not the first time they have discovered an active bald eagle nest on property they were developing. So they know what's required and how to work with the agencies involved. They can do it this time, too.
Others see the nest as more of a stumbling block.
Mayor Beverley Billiris said the agencies that protect the eagles will have to weigh in and advise the parties involved. One thing she will not vote for, she said, is another all-night meeting when the City Commission takes up the site plans Tuesday. "Maybe the eagle will settle the whole thing," she said. "I think nature will be the one that will have the last say in it. That's almost comical."
Dory Larsen, president of Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs, a group that has worked to stop Wal-Mart and protect the river, hopes the eagles make a big difference to her cause.
"It's beyond fantastic news," she said. "I am just e-l-a-t-e-d."
The eagles have been carrying sticks to the nest, perching in or near the live pine, flying back and forth together, said Barb Walker of East Lake, an Audubon of Florida Eaglewatcher who has been watching and documenting the nest.
Although bald eagles are no longer on the list of threatened and endangered species, they are still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The laws prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests or eggs.
"We've been aware since spring that there are eagles on the site," said Quenta Vettel, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. "We have an environmental engineer who monitors the site on a regular basis."
The company has faced this situation before.
"This isn't part of the city's purview," she said. "Once we have site plan approval and all the permits that will be required to start clearing and construction, then you begin working with the appropriate agencies to make sure you protect the nest and the eagles."
The big box retailer got City Commission approval for its site plan in January 2005, but has faced several delays due to permitting missteps and challenges to its revised site plan.
Most recently, the city's Board of Adjustment ruled changes to Wal-Mart's site plan required further study by city officials. The city's Planning and Zoning Board is set to finish its hearing on the proposed changes on Thursday. Next week, the commission will vote on whether to approve or deny the changes.
If Wal-Mart gets to build the supercenter, it will have to jump through some big hoops. And the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will be holding up quite a few.
The state has a complicated web of rules for the management of bald eagles that suggests measures that can help to mitigate for development.
Ulgonda Kirkpatrick, a wildlife biologist who coordinates the state's eagle plan, said she didn't yet know all the specifics on the new eagle nest Tuesday, but it sounded like the nest would be classified as a category B project. That would mean no construction activity within 660 feet of the nest during nesting season without a state permit.
This morning, two wildlife biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are scheduled to meet with Walker, the eaglewatcher. They will look through a powerful scope to verify the active nest.
Times Staff Writer Rita Farlow contributed to this story. Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.