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Board passes vote in Wal-Mart's favor

(ran North, South editions)

It was deja vu, the Planning and Zoning Board chairman said before the meeting began.

But late Monday night, after listening to the same litany of opposition, the same evidence from Wal-Mart's lawyers and little new information, the board voted, 4-3, to recommend the City Commission approve plans to build a supercenter on the Anclote River, reversing a previous decision against the big-box retailer.

In November, the board voted against a proposal allowing Wal-Mart to build a 204,000-square-foot supercenter with a drive-through pharmacy, garden center, supermarket and tire and lube service station.

After the city discovered the Planning and Zoning Department failed to properly notify the public about the hearing, that decision was voided and the board had to hold its meeting again.

This time, while giving Wal-Mart a minor victory, the board requested some concessions, including asking the retailer to restrict overnight truck deliveries, enforce a ban on overnight parking and shield store lights, build a concrete barrier around the store, and double the wetlands tree barrier.

The suggestions did little to quell the ire of the 150 opponents who showed up to make their case that a Wal-Mart Supercenter would injure Tarpon's character, local businesses, the environment and their quality of life.

Given the earlier decision, some figured the second Planning and Zoning meeting would be a mere formality. The reversal was stunning, said Joan Skaaland, an opposition leader who lives in Sail Harbor.

Skaaland pointed out new information presented to the board that she felt justified a "no" vote. Since the November meeting, the city commissioned an independent peer review of Wal-Mart's traffic study, which concluded that the retailer did not submit a sufficient report. The review, completed by engineering firm TBE Group, said that "the project would have a significant degradation of the roadway (level of service) standard."

Given that, Skaaland said she expected the board to vote down approval.

"My initial interest was my back yard," she said of her involvement in the anti-Wal-Mart crusade. "Now it is about what it will do for this community."

But Monday night, city lawyers and board members stressed the decision must be based on concrete legal evidence about how the project plans fit into the city's land development code.

The November vote was 6-1 against the project. The decision was at least partly based on an argument that a big-box retail store wouldn't fit the property's zoning. That night was the first time the board heard the argument challenging the zoning.

On Monday, members re-evaluated Wal-Mart's evidence and that of opposing residents and came up with a different conclusion, said board member Richard Glass, who changed his original nay vote.

"In November, there was an issue as to whether in fact GB (General Business zoning) allowed a project of this type," Glass said Tuesday. "In the meeting last night, we received evidence, written opinions, and the city's attorney indicated that in fact, this type of project was allowed."

Glass, Judy H. Fondrk, Chris Alahouzos and Warner Alexander voted to recommend the City Commission approve the site plan. Leonard Gravitz, Neal S. Kahn, and chairman Bud Margon voted against it.

In a second vote, the board decided to recommend approval of a development agreement. Kahn was the lone vote against it. The Planning and Zoning Board's vote is only a recommendation to the City Commission, which will consider the plan on Tuesday.

Skaaland hopes commissioners will take a step back and evaluate the project as a whole, she said.

"I'd rather a little mud on their face right now then us being stuck with this monstrosity for eternity," she said.

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