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Palm Harbor Wal-Mart gets okay

For almost a year the sign in the old citrus grove has teased shoppers as they rolled along U.S. 19 near Alderman Road. Finally, after months of discussion about tall trees and high retaining walls, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has received final approval for its plan to build Palm Harbor's first major discount department store.

Although a company representative last year said Wal-Mart might not build a store unless it could build a 90,000-square-foot structure, the company shaved a bit off the building to save large trees on the north end of the site.

Wal-Mart plans to open the store late this year, a company spokeswoman said Monday. It would be Pinellas County's second Wal-Mart; another store is under construction on U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park and is scheduled to open in May.

Known for its huge stores, low prices and folksy corporate leader, Sam Walton, Wal-Mart has aggressively moved onto the Suncoast in recent years.

A spokeswoman said Wal-Mart has 100 stores in Florida, 1,402 nationally and adds 150 stores a year.

County environmental officials objected to initial plans for the Wal-Mart because several tall live oak and laurel oak trees were scheduled for removal.

County ordinances generally protect trees of such age from destruction if possible.

The site, a former citrus grove owned by the Jukes family, presented other problems to Wal-Mart's representatives, county records show. The property slopes dramatically in spots, meaning retaining walls of up to 20 feet from the road to the parking lot are planned.

Fences or guard rails are planned to keep people and cars from sliding over the wall.

Wal-Mart's engineers reduced the size of the building to 86,707 square feet to save some 30-foot and 54-foot trees on the 22-acre parcel. Also, the engineers altered the route of a delivery truck access and the design of the parking lot to save other vegetation and open space.

The negotiations continued from February 1989, when the county's Board of Adjustment approved a variance to allow Wal-Mart to build a bigger store than the property's zoning allowed. An attorney for Wal-Mart said at the time that Wal-Mart built "cookie-cutter stores," meaning it had standard plans for an 80,000-square-foot and a 90,000-square-foot building.

Anything less than approval for 90,000 square feet - a size the market needed - and Wal-Mart might not build, store representatives said at the adjustment board hearing.

The board's action caught the attention of the County Commission, which asked the board to reconsider the 3-2 vote because the commissioners feared allowing larger buildings on U.S. 19 might set a precedent for others.

But after discussion with county officials, Wal-Mart's engineers reduced the building's size to accommodate the trees.

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