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Tarpon Springs Wal-Mart site plan as contentious as ever

TARPON SPRINGS — The Wal-Mart saga drags on.

Because this week's Planning and Zoning Board meeting barely made it out of the starting blocks, city commissioners next month will have less than 24 hours to consider that board's recommendation before making a decision.

This week's meeting didn't come close to producing that recommendation. About 90 people showed up; 35 signed up to speak; one got to the podium. So they'll try again Oct. 20 — one day before the City Commission is supposed to decide whether to approve the changes in Wal-Mart's site plans.

It didn't take long for Monday's meeting to unravel.

As soon as it started at 7 p.m., the board called a 10-minute recess to read a last-minute memo from the city attorney. Then Wal-Mart attorney David Theriaque asked two members to recuse themselves because they'd spoken publicly against the project.

Next, the board decided to adjourn at 11 p.m. and reconvene next month. Then Theriaque asked for another recusal.

The crowd erupted and started yelling at Theriaque.

It was nearly 8 p.m. and neither Wal-Mart nor its opposition had begun to make their case.

By the end of the meeting, the board had heard presentations on Wal-Mart's site plan for a 203,000-square-foot supercenter on the banks of the Anclote River, but there was little time left for public comment.

Wal-Mart argued that changes to the site plan made roads safer and addressed wetland concerns. Theriaque and the project engineer said the revisions conformed to city codes and development plans.

An urban planner working with Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs, the group opposing the project, disagreed. He argued the project would create dangers to drivers and pedestrians and destroy wetlands.

At 10:56 p.m., the board called the first public speaker. Resident and former Planning and Zoning Board member Tod Eckhouse, 61, said he didn't "have a dog in the fight" but wanted to speak in support of property rights that dictate Wal-Mart deserves treatment as equitable as for "any other applicant."

Brenda Lawhon, who lives near the site and opposes the project, said she was "furious" she had waited through the meeting and wasn't given a chance to speak. Lawhon, who won't be able to attend next month's meeting, said she wanted the board to hear about the nesting eagles she has seen on the property.

"I think that they were stonewalling us all the way. I'm blown away," said Lawhon, 46.

Board members said Monday they were trying to avoid an all-night meeting like the January 2005 hearing in which Wal-Mart got its original site plan approval from city commissioners.

Commissioners this week were split on whether the short time between Planning and Zoning's recommendation and their own meeting would affect their ability to make a decision.

Commissioner Chris Alahouzos said he was concerned he wouldn't have enough time to digest the recommendation.

"I was hoping they would finish and make a decision, so they could give us a recommendation and give us the opportunity to read the minutes so we'd know exactly what took place," he said.

But Mayor Beverley Billiris said the time crunch didn't concern her. "Could I do it? Yes, I could. Does it put more pressure on us? Yes, but it is doable," she said.

Commissioner Robin Saenger agreed. "The burden is going to fall to staff and I think they can get it done," she said.

Interim City Manager Mark LeCouris said city staff would "burn the midnight oil" if necessary to get the board's recommendation ready.

Overheard

"I think that they were stonewalling us all the way. I'm blown away."

Brenda Lawhon, lives near the site and opposes the project

"I was hoping they would finish and make a decision, so they could give us a recommendation and give us the opportunity to read the minutes so we'd know exactly what took place."

Chris Alahouzos, commissioner

"Could I do it? Yes, I could. Does it put more pressure on us? Yes, but it is doable."

Beverley Billiris, mayor, on decision-making time crunch

>>IF YOU GO

Site plan hearing

The Tarpon Springs Planning and Zoning Board will continue its hearing on the revisions to Wal-Mart's site plan at 7 p.m. Oct. 20. The meeting is open to the public. City commissioners are scheduled to hear the matter at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 21.

Tarpon Springs Wal-Mart site plan as contentious as ever 09/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 7:16pm]
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