Tarpon Springs Wal-Mart plan hits another snag

TARPON SPRINGS — More than three years after getting the go ahead from the City Commission, Wal-Mart has hit another snag in its bid to build a supercenter near the Anclote River.

In a move that could send the discount retailer back to the drawing board — and back before the City Commission for more public hearings — the city's Board of Adjustment on Wednesday declined to revisit its decision regarding Wal-Mart's proposed site plan changes.

Instead, the board stuck by its original ruling, made after a lengthy hearing in January, that site plan changes submitted by Wal-Mart were major revisions that would require new public hearings.

"I'm quite comfortable with the decision we made during the initial hearing (on Jan. 16)," board chairman Ed Cole said.

This isn't the first hurdle the national retailer has run into during its four-year battle to build a store on the western bank of the river.

After Wal-Mart received final site plan approval from the city three years ago, project opponents discovered the Army Corps of Engineers had improperly granted a permit allowing the company to build over a small protected wetlands area.

The corps subsequently withdrew the permit, and Wal-Mart had to choose whether to redesign the project, which would require the company to endure another long approval process, or make adjustments to avoid protected wetlands.

Wal-Mart chose the latter.

In August, the company submitted a revised site plan to the city. City staffers concluded changes to the plan were "minor," but Wal-Mart opponents appealed the decision to the Board of Adjustment.

In January, board members sided with the opposition, voting 3-2 that the changes were "major."

Wal-Mart appealed that decision to the board Wednesday.

Wal-Mart attorney David Theriaque argued his client's rights to due process had been violated because board member Matt King didn't recuse himself from the Jan. 16 hearing. King previously has said he doesn't support the project and campaigned heavily on that theme during his unsuccessful bid for the City Commission in 2005.

King said he didn't recuse himself from the original hearing because he believed he could make an unbiased decision.

Wal-Mart disagreed and asked the board to rehear its case based on King's perceived bias.

"I do not make this motion pleasantly. I don't find joy in it," Theriaque said. "My client's due process rights were violated."

Wednesday, King said he would recuse himself from the proceeding because the motion specifically questioned his partiality. Before leaving the dais, King stated for the record that he still held to his original decision.

Board members declined to make a motion to rehear Wal-Mart's case.

King rejoined the board to hear Wal-Mart's second motion, which sought clarification of its January decision.

Theriaque argued his client couldn't begin to revise its site plan changes until the board made clear why it voted the changes were major. He requested another hearing for board members to expound on their decisions.

But board members rejected that request and said they believed their justifications were expressed during the Jan. 16 meeting.

King made a motion to provide Wal-Mart with a written decision that includes the individual justification of each member. It passed unanimously.

Wal-Mart would have 30 days from the date a written decision was rendered to appeal the board's decision in circuit court, said Shauna Morris, an attorney representing the city in the matter.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Quenta Vettel said company representatives would review the options with Theriaque before making a decision on how to proceed.

Vettel said she was disappointed with the decision. "We just don't feel we've received a fair consideration from the board," she said.

Opponents said the outcome of Wednesday's meeting was another small victory in a long and contentious battle.

"It's huge," said Chris Hrabovsky, a Tarpon Springs resident. "It's a major thing."

>>fast facts

Major vs. minor

These are the disputed changes to Wal-Mart's proposed site plan near the Anclote River. The Tarpon Springs Board of Adjustment decided they are major — not minor, as the city's staff had concluded — and thus require another public hearing:

• Development agreement's statement that 33.5 acres of wetlands exist on the site, while later documents claim 28.1 acres of wetlands.

• Two encroachments into the 50-foot river buffer.

• Two encroachments into the 30-foot wetlands buffer.

• A change in the number of vehicle access points.

• Land use change on property from preservation to recreational use.

Tarpon Springs Wal-Mart plan hits another snag 03/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 11:33am]

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