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County delays vote on strip mall

County commissioners narrowly decided Wednesday to wait to rezone an agricultural spot for a 300,000-square-foot strip mall for big-box stores.

They'll wait until after they have toured the neighborhood most affected by such development.

The decision came after several county residents who oppose the development, complained that they are already struggling with problems from the soon-to-open Wal-Mart Supercenter, which has been built on U.S. 19 and Osowaw Boulevard, just north of the proposed strip mall.

However, by delaying the vote until May 14, commissioners may have inadvertently denied a future voice to Forest Glenn Retirement Village residents, most of whom are snowbirds and plan to return north before that meeting, residents said.

"They're going to win just by default," said Barbara Price, a Forest Glenn resident opposed to further development in the area west of U.S. 19. "We're going to be boxed in by commercial."

The board voted 3-to-2 to postpone the vote, with commissioners Mary Aiken and Diane Rowden voting against.

Aiken said she is opposed to the development, which she called "uncompatible" with the surrounding area.

Rowden is also opposed to the development, because submitted plans were vague about the proposed building. She also cited the availability of empty big-box stores near that site, including an empty Service Merchandise and a soon-to-be vacant Kmart, Kash n' Karry and Wal-Mart discount store, which will be abandoned when the Supercenter opens.

"This is an example of uncontrolled growth," said Rowden. Whenever she drives down U.S. 19, she's reminded of "too much vacant commercial property," she said.

But commissioners Nancy Robinson, Robert Schenck and Betty Whitehouse said that postponing the vote would allow time to see how Wal-Mart's construction has affected the mobile home community. And it would give landowners more time to work out a better agreement with the residents.

Peter Creighton of Pinellas Park, who represented the landowner, said he would be willing to enlarge the proposed 35-foot wetland buffer between the development and the neighborhood to 70 feet.

Most residents said after the meeting that they had no intention of working with the landowner on a better buffer.

Although only five spoke publicly about their opposition, about 20 residents attended the meeting, saying they were opposed.

Forest Glenn residents said they were never notified about the Wal-Mart project, and have since had to cope with the ill effects, including noise and cracks in their foundations they blame on construction that extended to 24 hours a day. And now they deal with the noise and rattling from the traffic on U.S. 19, because many buffering trees were stripped during the Wal-Mart construction.

"We can't have a quiet community any more," said Ralph Esposito of Forest Glenn.

Forest Glenn residents and the citizen-group Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl Efforts, or CAUSE, said they were also concerned about the potential increased encroachment that such development would have on the natural wildlife in the area, including the habitat of the black bear population, which is the smallest in North America.

Resident Dorothy Weber, a snowbird who has lived in Forest Glenn for 12 years, said she saw a black bear in the area two years ago. Other residents said they've seen evidence of the bears coming into their community.

Commissioners and county attorneys spoke cautiously, wary of repeating the Wal-Mart permitting process. They were careful to make sure that government public meeting laws will not be broken during the upcoming commission tour of the neighborhood.

The permit for the Wal-Mart Supercenter, slated to open mid April, was approved last year, despite concerns from CAUSE and other residents about Wal-Mart's impact on the Nature Coast and black bear habitat.

At the time, commissioners said, their hands were tied, because the land was already rezoned for commercial development.

"We have a choice right now," Rowden said.

CAUSE has sued the county for violating public meeting laws during Wal-Mart's permitting process, seeking to have the Wal-Mart turned down. The judge ruled the county did violate Sunshine Laws but allowed the permit to stand. The case is on appeal.