Here we go again. The hours of emotional debate. The legal maneuvers. The threat of court battles. The pleas on behalf of wildlife.
Wal-Mart is on the Tarpon Springs City Commission's agenda again, recalling echoes of January 2005, when a historic, all-night public hearing culminated in the commission approving Wal-Mart's proposal to build a supercenter on a picturesque property on the banks of the Anclote River.
Now, a commission with three new members confronts the same scenario. And what each of them needs to keep in mind at Tuesday night's public hearing is this: They are not there to make an emotional decision. They are not there to make a political decision. They are there to weigh the evidence and make a decision based on law and procedure.
Any other approach will only open the city to expensive legal challenges and waste a river of taxpayers' dollars.
Wal-Mart has battled for almost four years for the opportunity to build the supercenter. Construction has been delayed by persistent opponents, who pored through documents and filed lawsuits and challenged permits. Resulting changes Wal-Mart made in its site plan were determined to be major changes, not minor ones, by the city's Board of Adjustment, which meant that Wal-Mart had to go back before the City Commission to win approval for its plan.
Opponents hope that this time, the City Commission will turn down the project. They argue that a beautiful 74-acre property with acres of wetlands and more than a thousand trees, located on the edge of the Anclote River — a protected Florida waterway — and alongside already busy U.S. 19 is not the place for a supercenter. However, the property was long ago zoned for commercial development.
The recent discovery that eagles are nesting on the site has delighted opponents and given Wal-Mart another headache, because the nest is federally protected and special development rules apply.
Wal-Mart's sharp attorneys are playing every angle. For example, they are attempting to force two commissioners, Peter Dalacos and Susan Slattery, to recuse themselves from Tuesday's vote because they have previously spoken out against the project. Notice that Wal-Mart is not attempting to remove Mayor Beverley Billiris, who favored the project in 2005.
Last week Tarpon's planning and zoning board voted to deny Wal-Mart's site plan. However, the board's opinion is advisory, so the final decision lies with the City Commission.
City law contains the standards that developers must meet when preparing site plans for their projects, and it also guides the city's review of those site plans. No matter how they personally feel about the project, commissioners should let the law be their guide.