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Wal-Mart meeting draws threats

A meeting Tuesday night about property sought by Wal-Mart along U.S. 19 stirred more controversy before it even started, when threatening phone calls promised bloodshed.

The calls, both to school officials and to a member of environmental group CAUSE, prompted the special posting of a Hernando County sheriff's deputy at the meeting at Westside Elementary.

The school district hired the deputy for the special detail and will pass the cost off to CAUSE, which stands for Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl Efforts. CAUSE paid the school for the space to unveil its opposition to the site's development as a Wal-Mart supercenter.

But before the meeting, school officials and CAUSE members heard from some angry residents opposed to their cause.

"There will be guns brought to the meeting and blood shed," a male caller twice told the secretary of the principal at Westside Elementary, according to a report with the Sheriff's Office. He identified himself as Wilbur Martin, the report said.

"Apparently, the subject wants the business built and the meeting is for citizens opposing the construction," the report said.

When contacted Wednesday, Martin said he made calls but that his comments were taken out of context. He had called to ask why the school was letting the group use its space. Though he said he did not attend the meeting, he refused to elaborate on his opposition to CAUSE and hung up.

In the report, Martin told sheriff's deputies, after they arrived at his house Tuesday, that he did tell the principal's secretary that "there will be blood shed, better get the police and ambulance for tonight's meeting." He told police that it would be his blood shed because he had planned to be vocal. He denied talking about guns and said he had no intention to harm anyone.

No arrests were made.

Arline Erdrich, spokeswoman for CAUSE, said she had received a similar call and notified the Sheriff's Office. She also received several other angry calls but said they were not threatening.

Principal Charles Johnson said the cafeteria was rented to the group because the use was similar to that of other groups who ask to rent the space.

But thanks to the stir, he would pause if CAUSE asked again.

"I think I would have to think long and hard about it," Johnson said.

The two-hour meeting almost passed without any incident until the question-and-answer period. Most of the meeting was filled with speeches about the wildlife in Hernando County and the impact upon them by development.

Laurie McDonald, a wildlife zoologist, showed slides of black bears, manatees and gopher tortoises. With only about 20 black bears left between Aripeka and Chassahowitzka, a major disruption in their habitat could threaten their health and survival, she said. The black bears need hundreds of thousands of acres to roam for food and mates.

In the middle of their habitat sits the site wanted by Wal-Mart. The site, on the southwest corner of U.S. 19 and Osowaw Boulevard, was rezoned for commercial use in the late 1990s, a process CAUSE claims contradicted the property's deed and the county's future land-use plan. While Wal-Mart seeks its building permits and site-plan approval by the county, members hope to overturn the zoning. They expect to make their plea before the County Commission by the end of the year.

CAUSE members fear that development of the site will worsen traffic on Osowaw Boulevard, a problem they blame for the death of two bear cubs hit and killed on that road in September.

Some residents spoke up at the end of the meeting, attended by more than 100 people, saying they didn't see how stopping development on one tract would help the bears.

"Growth is coming inevitably," said Brooksville resident Kevin Callaghan.

Judy Kasper, resident of Hernando Beach, said preserving the land would take it off the tax rolls. When she pointed out that the county already has large chunks of land in preservation, audience members yelled, clapped and shouted her down in response. One yelled, "Move to Pinellas."

But CAUSE members said that a large development could scare away the bears with its lights and noise. Also, they added, development causes a drain on services, such as infrastructure.

It won't be the last word for either side. Joseph Lemieux, who moderated the meeting, said he hoped the group could hold a forum every quarter.