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Group hopes to block Wal-Mart

You probably won't see mock funerals for wildlife or similar tactics used by other environmental groups.

Instead, members of CAUSE, or Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl Efforts, are planning their battle with facts, says spokeswoman Arline Erdrich.

CAUSE is opposed to development of the property at the corner of Osowaw Boulevard and U.S. 19 for a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter.

While members' chief worry is that the boxy store would encroach on habitat for black bears and other wildlife, they plan to win their argument with land use documents and property deeds.

"The increased traffic is responsible for the killing of the two bear cubs," she said, referring to the September incident when two male cubs were struck and killed while following their mother across Osowaw Boulevard into the Weekiwachee Preserve. She blames increased traffic through that area for the deaths of the two cubs, a situation she fears will worsen if the site is developed.

"We know how important that is and the threat to various species of animals and birds," she said. "But the only way you can really go and approach this thing in a reasonable way is to have facts, hard cold facts. We're intending to do that."

CAUSE will lay out those facts during a meeting tonight for members and the public at 7 p.m. at West Side Elementary, 5400 Applegate Drive.

The group hopes to gather signatures at the meeting to put a question on the ballot next year about whether the site should remain natural or be developed into a big box store. Members already have about 1,000 signatures, she said. They need another 19,000.

CAUSE wants to persuade the County Commission that there is enough popular support to convert the zoning from commercial back to agricultural and utilities, undoing a change approved by a previous commission in the late 1990s.

The zoning change contradicts both the county's comprehensive plan and the deed on the property calling for it to remain undeveloped, Erdrich said.

The group also has hired an attorney from Jacksonville who has specialized in land use issues, raising the possibility of a lawsuit.

"There's always potential that we could file suit again because the previous commission went against its own comprehensive plan," she said.

Environmentalists, led by Erdrich, tried that tactic in 1999, filing suit in Hernando County circuit court against the commission and Florida Water Services, the property owner. But the lawsuit went nowhere after Erdrich became ill.

County Planning Director Larry Jennings says his office supported the rezoning because the action does not contradict the comprehensive plan.

"It's located basically within a strip commercial area," Jennings said. Though the area is marked as a public facility, he said, the comprehensive plan policies allow for commercial nodes within those parcels.

Assistant County Attorney Kent Weissinger said that, generally speaking, if the use of a piece of property is ordered changed after rezoning, the property owner could demand compensation.

"Once a property owner has a right to use his property in a certain way, if that right is altered or changed, generally there are going to be some remedies for that," he said.

Daphne Moore, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, which is still in the process of obtaining county building permits, said the company is not as obtrusive as it could be in that site because it's building a store smaller than what's allowed there.

Building space is about 200,000 square feet, with possibly a few thousand more for a garden center, she said. That's about 30,000 to 40,000 square feet less than what's approved.

Also, county staff forced the company to cut its proposed entrances down from 13 to six, she said. As for traffic, she says both U.S. 19 and Osowaw Boulevard will continue to see steady traffic, with or without a supercenter at the corner.

She had no information regarding the deed on the property, but said a change in property use at this point could raise legal questions.

"I think there are some property rights issues there," she said. "If an individual has some property designation, they should be able to move forward with plans to develop. What we have proposed meets the zoning."