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With Walmart's riverfront property for sale, Tarpon Springs considers options

TARPON SPRINGS — After causing years of hand-wringing by residents and environmental groups, Walmart has finally decided to put its 74-acre riverfront property up for sale.

The property, thought to be home to bald eagles, gopher tortoises and sandhill cranes, is listed at $8.5 million.

"We've had several national homebuilders looking at it," said Daniel Earles, the real estate broker representing Walmart. "We want someone who will be responsible and sensitive to the environment and what is there."

Walmart's decision to market the property comes almost five years after the retail giant abandoned its plans to build a supercenter on the scenic site. Instead, Walmart opened a store in the former Kmart on U.S. 19.

Walmart's decision not to build on the tree-covered property overlooking the Anclote River seemed to be a concession, at least in part, to residents who for years fought the project with protests and lawsuits and passionate City Commission testimonies that lasted late into the night.

But it also left city leaders and residents wondering what would become of the parcel, which is on the east side of U.S. 19 along the south bank of the river.

"There is still this big question mark," said project opponent Dory Larsen, who is married to City Commissioner Jeff Larsen but said her opinions are her own. "Did we work this hard to see homes go on it? I hope not."

For the city, the options for proceeding are few.

Commissioners have limited control over transactions between private businesses, and Tarpon Springs isn't positioned to buy the park without a significant outside contribution, City Manager Mark LeCouris said at a recent meeting, adding that the city can't afford to put up any more than $1.5 million.

"The city has continued being involved and being open to anything," LeCouris said. "But nobody is coming forward with any cash to make this thing happen."

One likely outcome is that the property will attract a homebuilder or other developer who will have to get site plans approved in a public hearing.

Under current zoning, the land could be used for restaurants or retail establishments that follow city code, but a developer would need a zoning change to build homes.

The property's wildlife and its position on a protected waterway make it complicated to develop. A builder would have to stay at least 100 feet from the bald eagle's nest, even with a special permit, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Roughly half of the property is thought to be buildable.

That's why Friends of the Anclote River and other environmental groups hope Walmart may eventually discount the property and strike a deal with the city, which could build a park and name it after Walmart founder Sam Walton.

"Walmart is trying to come around as a more family-friendly and community-friendly company," said Peter Dalacos, a former commissioner and member of Friends of the Anclote River. "Now is the opportunity for the next step of community goodwill."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters or mail to the Tampa Bay Times, 1130 Cleveland St., Suite 100A, Clearwater, FL 33755.

With Walmart's riverfront property for sale, Tarpon Springs considers options 09/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 13, 2013 5:34pm]
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