TARPON SPRINGS — Wal-Mart's announcement last week that it's holding off on plans to develop its site on the Anclote River has local officials scrambling to find the funds to buy the land and preserve it.
The 74-acre commercially zoned tract, with frontage on U.S. 19, is just south of the Pinellas-Pasco line. Bordered on the north by the river, the property has a large sand pit at its center; other areas have been scarred over the years by all-terrain vehicles. Much of the property is covered with trees and roughly a third of it is made up of wetlands. Among other wildlife, nesting bald eagles have been found on the site.
For years, environmental activists have argued the property is ill-suited for a 203,000-square-foot retail center and massive parking lot with more than 900 spaces and would be best used as a public park.
But America's largest retailer is adamant it has no plans to sell the property, which is valued at $6.64-million on county property tax rolls.
Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris has asked Wal-Mart to reconsider and said she expects to hear back next week. The city can't afford the property, Billiris said, so she's seeking help from the county.
"It's a lovely site, and we would love to add it to our preserved lands. Unfortunately, this all just happened and we just bought three pieces of property this year," said Pinellas County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris. "At this point, we don't have any money for it."
And asking the state for the money could be a long shot as legislators are facing tough decisions on how to trim from a budget with a $2.14-billion deficit.
So, what's to become of the highly prized waterfront property on the east side of U.S. 19?
Wal-Mart officials contend that though they're putting the project on hold, in part because of economic conditions, they might come back to the city with a new development plan in the near future.
If they do, they'll have to start from scratch with a new site plan and development agreement.
They'll need another traffic study to try to prove the supercenter won't adversely affect traffic on Pinellas' busiest north-south corridor. That could be a tough sell, considering the level of service on that stretch has dropped from an A to an F since the project was first conceived. About 72,500 cars travel that part of U.S. 19 daily, according to the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Wal-Mart will also face additional permitting requirements to deal with the presence of nesting bald eagles.
And the company may face stricter design rules as city officials are working on an ordinance to regulate big box retailers.
Also, it will be dealing with a different City Commission than the one that first approved the project by a slim margin in January 2005.
Wal-Mart could be waiting to sell until market values improve, with the hopes of recouping costs, not just for the land, but for the lawyers, planners and engineers on the payroll for the project.
But finding a buyer could be tricky. A core group of activists that has waged a fierce four-year battle against Wal-Mart have said it plans to keep watchful eyes out for any development that would spoil the natural beauty of the property.
Further, a potential buyer who wanted to develop something other than a retail center, say, condos — a better fit for the environmentally sensitive spot — would have to get the land rezoned from business to residential, which would require city and county approval.
Community activists have also suggested Wal-Mart could repair its tarnished image in Tarpon Springs if it agreed to donate the property for use as a park.
"I'd be happy to call it Sam Walton Park if they'd just give it to us," said activist Chris Hrabovsky.
So far, that's a move the company has been unwilling to entertain.
Rita Farlow can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4162.