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Wal-Mart plan stirs anxiety in Tarpon Springs

(ran PC edition)

When Joan Skaaland and her family moved into their Jasmine Avenue home four years ago, the surrounding area looked almost rustic.

Thick with live oaks and cypress trees, her back yard and boat dock face west, directly onto the Anclote River.

"We love the remoteness of it," Skaaland said. "That's why we moved here _ for the view and the birds that come to visit."

But these days Skaaland, 50, worries there might not be much to look at if plans to build a Wal-Mart nearby go through.

"To stand on the dock and look out and see a Wal-Mart is not my idea of a view," said Skaaland, a homemaker and mother of two.

Skaaland is one of several Tarpon Springs residents who say they want more details about a proposal to build a Wal-Mart on a huge swath of land sandwiched between U.S. 19 and Jasmine Avenue.

Bounded to the north and south by Beckett Way and Live Oak Parkway, the 75.4-acre lot consists mostly of wetlands. But developers plan to build a store and possibly several townhomes on the roughly 45 acres of the parcel located upland from the river, according to Tarpon Springs officials.

The vacant lot is owned by Ceridian, an employee benefits administration firm that owns several Pinellas County properties. The company recently sold a 51-acre property in St. Petersburg to a developer that plans to build a Wal-Mart on that site.

Last month, Ceridian confirmed that it had entered into a "tentative agreement" to sell the Tarpon Springs site. But Wal-Mart and Tarpon Springs officials remain mum about many of the details of the plan to build a Wal-Mart on the vacant lot.

City Manager Ellen Posivach said last week that an unnamed developer has entered into a one-year agreement with Ceridian to buy the property. But it could be months before construction on the site begins, if it happens at all, she said.

"If they make that decision, then they've got to come through the city for planning and development," Posivach said, "and they haven't done that yet."

Calls to Wal-Mart were not returned Friday. But a representative for the retail giant said last month that Wal-Mart is "working on a store at that location in Tarpon Springs."

Like Skaaland, Virginia Douglass also isn't too happy to hear that. A retired nurse who lives in a mobile home near U.S. 19 and Live Oak Parkway, Douglass has never been much of Wal-Mart fan. Years before she moved to the Tarpon Glen Mobile Home Park, she watched with disgust as the mega-retailer edged out smaller stores in the Ohio town where she lived.

"I don't think it's a good idea, because Wal-Mart ruins every place it goes," Douglass, 77, said.

Douglass and others who live in the 155-lot mobile home park have become increasingly anxious about a recent spate of land surveyor visits to the neighboring lot, she said.

"Everybody is afraid of it because of what Wal-Mart does _ how much it changes when it comes in," she said.

Well, not everybody.

Tony Cangiano, Douglass' next-door neighbor and president of the mobile home park association, said the proposed Wal-Mart got mixed reviews during a recent community meeting. Few residents complained about the convenience of being able to walk to the store from their homes, he said.

But many worry that a plan to build an exit for the store onto Jasmine Avenue _ one of the few details about the project that's been made public _ would increase traffic on the narrow two-lane road.

"All that traffic on Jasmine is going to be difficult," said Cangiano, 68. "You're dealing with senior citizens here, and some of them don't see so good."

Mobile Home Park manager Bill Bohannon declined to comment on the neighboring development plan.

Skaaland said she will have plenty to say if and when the land's developer submits to the city plans to build near her back yard. Skaaland and her husband, Ed, paid $630,000 for their four-bedroom, two-story home tucked away in an exclusive enclave off Jasmine Avenue. Worried about the effect the proposed Wal-Mart might have on area property values, she recently wrote a letter to the city asking for more information about the plan.

"This house was a serious investment for us, so I'm concerned," Skaaland said.

Wal-Mart first approached Tarpon officials about building a store in April, roughly two weeks after Pinellas County commissioners turned down the proposed supercenter in Palm Harbor. Wal-Mart attorneys then proposed annexing into Tarpon Springs the 38.7-acre site on U.S. 19, just south of Klosterman Road, where a 205,000-square-foot supercenter was originally proposed before county commissioners scuttled the plan.

Posivach said it's too early to tell how plans to build a Wal-Mart in the city will fare.

"I don't think people should be worrying about something that hasn't even happened yet," she said.

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