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Lowe's to build with county approval

The county hopes the agreement with the home improvement store will satisfy many concerns of a nearby subdivision.

After two years spent battling potential neighbors, Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse appears set to build a store on U.S. 19 near Berkeley Manor Boulevard.

Paving the way to construction is a pending agreement that would keep truck traffic out of the Berkeley Manor subdivision, a key concern of the area's homeowners. The accord, which county commissioners will consider Tuesday, would limit the number of exits from the store's parking lot into the neighborhood and bar large trucks from turning left into the residential area.

The company will build a frontage road along U.S. 19, give the homeowners $25,000 for landscaping. Lowe's also will create buffers between the store and nearby homes.

"It will preserve the residential environment, which is priority No. 1, and it will protect the frontage road concept," said County Commissioner Nancy Robinson, who helped broker the deal. "It's a win-win."

To some Berkeley Manor residents, who learned of the proposed details about two weeks ago, the arrangement is little more than the best that a bad situation could create. Most people would prefer that Lowe's disappear, said Virginia Sommerfeld, a director of the Berkeley Manor Owners Association.

"It's not going to satisfy us, but (County Attorney Garth) Coller very carefully explained to us it's fish or cut bait," Sommerfeld said. "We have the chance of losing everything."

Lowe's sued the county in the summer after the commission refused to grant the retailer access via a frontage road to the property where it plans to build. The trial is scheduled to begin April 9 if commissioners do not approve this settlement.

Coller is recommending board approval as a way to avoid spending hundreds of thousands of dollars litigating what appears to be a losing case.

"When it came to the Board of County Commissioners denying it on the basis of a frontage road with no evidence of health, safety or welfare concerns . . . it obviously gave us problems in terms of ultimate defense," Coller said. "Commissioner Robinson thought there was an opportunity to make everyone happy or at least not unhappy. . . . If we could make reasonable compromises on both sides, we could reach that goal."

Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason, who represents Lowe's, said his clients are satisfied with the settlement offer even though they had a strong case to present in court. Lowe's essentially got what it needs to open a store, he said, and it avoids further bad feelings with its neighbors.

"If we just cram it down the throats of the people in Berkeley Manor, then we're not going to make any friends out there," Mason said. "There were never going to be any semis going through there. But if we can do something to assure the folks in Berkeley Manor that, that physically can't be done even if they want to . . . the question becomes, why not?"

Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said the proposal offers a good alternative to the community by maintaining frontage road provisions, avoiding costly litigation and keeping trucks out of Berkeley Manor.

"I think everybody in the long term will benefit," he said.

County Commissioner Betty Whitehouse had not read the document. But she, too, said she favored compromise.

If the commission approves the proposal, Mason said, Lowe's could open before the end of the year.

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