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Wal-Mart asks city to delay decision

The Pinellas Park Council is scheduled to consider the plan for a supercenter on Thursday. A Wal-Mart attorney says the delay will allow the store to pursue less-objectionable alternatives.

Faced with neighborhood opposition and two previous defeats in front of a citizens board, Wal-Mart for the second time has asked City Council to delay its final decision whether to allow the discount giant to build a supercenter on protected wetlands.

The request came late Thursday, one week before the Pinellas Park council decision was scheduled.

"In light of citizen and staff concerns considering wetlands impacts and stormwater retention, our client is pursuing alternatives that may make the proposed development palatable to both the city and local residents," Bryan Sykes, a Tampa attorney who represents Wal-Mart, wrote in a letter Thursday asking for the continuance.

Sykes asked the council to postpone their decision until Aug. 26 or Sept. 9, whichever is more convenient for city officials.

Typically, the City Council grants such requests, although it is unclear if members will okay this one. The council had cleared its agenda for the controversial decision and because it is a quasi-judicial matter, members are barred from discussing the issue anywhere other than the meeting. That requirement of silence includes requests for postponement.

The item will come up on the agenda Thursday and the council will have to vote whether to postpone the decision and set a date. The council meeting is 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, 5141 78th Ave. N.

"I apologize for any inconvenience this delay may cause," he wrote, "and I appreciate the City Council's efforts in clearing its agenda for the original Aug. 12 meeting."

Still, the additional time is necessary, Sykes wrote, to "allow our client to better define the appropriateness of the aforementioned alternatives."

He did not go into detail about any changes Wal-Mart might be considering. Nor did he return a phone message Thursday asking for details. The woman who answered the phone at Sykes' office Friday said none of the Wal-Mart representatives cared to comment about possible changes.

This is the latest twist in the story that has polarized some residents in the northeast portion of Pinellas Park. Wal-Mart announced last spring its plans to almost double the size of its 118,312-square-foot store at 8900 U.S. 19 N.

The expanded store would include a grocery and an auto-lube center. It would be open 24 hours a day, as is the existing store.

To build the supercenter, Wal-Mart proposed buying land to the south and southeast of the existing store. About 6 acres of that is zoned protected wetlands, which Wal-Mart would have to fill and rebuild nearby. The discount giant also would have to provide ditches and retention ponds as drainage mitigation for the store's expansion.

Rebuilding the wetlands and offering drainage mitigation have not calmed the fears of some residents on the west side of U.S. 19. These people, who neighbor the store, want the wetlands maintained.

Many on the east side of U.S. 19 in the Mainlands, a senior community, disagree. They want the expanded store with its low prices, convenience and groceries.

The two sides have been battling the issue in letters to the Pinellas Park Planning and Zoning Commission and the council.

"Wildlife, yes. Wal-Mart, no. Albertson's, Publix, Winn-Dixie (in alphabetical order), yes. Wal-Mart, no," wrote Henrietta Morris in one letter.

But Barbara Steward wrote: "I work hard five days a week for IBM and when I get off from work, it is quite hard for me to run from one store to another for just a few items. I feel this is one more great step for Pinellas Park."

Thus far, the opposition is winning. Wal-Mart's petition to change the zoning was twice turned down by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which recommended the chain consider altering its plan.

The City Council recently granted the chain tentative approval, but that was merely a way to pass the issue on to the final decision. That's when Wal-Mart balked.

Because it's unclear whether Wal-Mart is planning to offer a completely new plan, it was hard for Assistant City Attorney Tom Reynolds to offer a next step.

If the chain significantly alters the plan, then the council likely would send it back to the city staff for review. Council members also might require that the Planning and Zoning Commission consider the new proposal.

But if there are no significant changes, the matter likely will stay before the council.

Either way, a delay would allow proponents and opponents a chance to submit more written opinions and petitions before the final hearing.