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Attorney says Wal-Mart plans still a go

The proposal to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter on a slice of land in the newly annexed portion of the city is still alive, an attorney representing the retail giant said Monday.

"Everything is still on," Marilyn Mullen Healy said. "We're going to continue to work with the community."

The superstore would be built along U.S. 19, just north of St. Benedict Catholic Church, on about 53 acres owned by RealtiCorp, a South Carolina developer, Mullen Healy said.

RealtiCorp is the same developer seeking permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fill in nearly 13 acres of wetlands on another swath of land, straddling Penn Drive and abutting W Venable Street to the north.

That project, known as the Preserve at Crystal River, is designed to accommodate a retail anchor store, smaller shops and a complex of single-family homes.

Jon Salem of RealtiCorp sent a letter Friday to the Citrus Times to dispel some myths about its intentions for the Preserve at Crystal River.

Believing residents were under the perception that a Wal-Mart Supercenter was proposed for the site and therefore were opposing the corps permit application, Salem said, the site "is too small to accommodate a large, national discount department store."

The project has garnered plenty of opposition.

More than 100 letters opposing RealtiCorp's application had been sent to the corps as of Monday, said Kelly Finch, a corps biologist overseeing RealtiCorp's application.

"I have not received any positive comments yet," she said. "They don't want to see the wetlands impacted at all."

Last month, RealtiCorp offered to buy 170 acres of mixed uplands and wetland habitat west of U.S. 19 and north of downtown Crystal River, then donate the land to the Crystal River State Buffer Preserve. That purchase was designed to provide mitigation for some wetlands the company proposed to fill as part of its development.

Finch noted that people who sent letters to the corps oppose that arrangement as well.

Unlike the site for the Preserve at Crystal River, RealtiCorp would not need to obtain permits from the corps for the Wal-Mart site because there are no corps-overseen wetlands at the site, Mullen Healy said.

It doesn't matter, said Joanne Bartell, an environmental activist.

"I'm opposed to filling in any of the wetlands" in the RealtiCorp property, Bartell said. "I would have no problem whatsoever with a smaller retail building, but not if they have to fill in the wetlands to put it there."

Preservation of the local ecology, which draws tourists and nourishes the economy, is the most important consideration, she said.

"If we want to go shopping, we can drive down to New Port Richey," she said.

The RealtiCorp land is part of 500-plus acres that were annexed by Crystal River in April. RealtiCorp initiated the annexation after negotiations with county officials for construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter broke down.

County officials have major problems with Crystal River's annexation _ they have filed two lawsuits against the city _ and with RealtiCorp's desire to develop the land.

They contend that nearly a dozen acres in RealtiCorp's property at the southern edge of Crystal River city limits are known as "connected wetlands," meaning they are linked to a system of underground culverts that empty into the Crystal River and the Gulf of Mexico.

Besides filling in wetlands for development, the county opposes construction that will encroach upon the county-operated Crystal River Airport and its runway protection zone. Construction in that area would violate Federal Aviation Administration standards and could jeopardize federal funding to the airport.

Raghuram Vadarevu can be reached at rvadarevusptimes.com or (352) 564-3627.

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