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Group's Wal-Mart battle grows more expensive

The battle to keep Wal-Mart out of town just got more expensive.

A group of opponents of the big-box store filed two lawsuits last year, both of which are still pending. Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs had requested, and received, a temporary postponement of the suit that would cost it more money. But that reprieve has just expired, meaning that the grass roots group is suddenly facing a fiscal crunch.

"Right now we're just looking to raise cash," said Joan Skaaland, a leader of Concerned Citizens. "We need to do it fast and we need to get a lot."

In one of the lawsuits, the group argues that the City Commission did not follow the law when it approved Wal-Mart's plan and asked the court to reverse that decision or order a new vote. A three-judge panel is still reviewing this case.

The citizens' group had hoped a victory in that proceeding would nullify the need for the second suit. In what is known as the 163 action because of the state statue involved, Concerned Citizens is arguing that the store's size and traffic plan conflict with the city's comprehensive plan. The store is slated to be built on U.S. 19 along the Anclote River.

Pursuing this case would be more expensive and time-consuming because of the cost involved in interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence.

At the request of Concerned Citizens, Circuit Judge Nelly Khouzam had agreed last year to issue a stay in the 163 action - until Feb. 1.

But the deadline came and went without word from the three-judge panel, and Khouzam has said the 163 case must go on.

So, after months on hold, discovery requests have been issued, interrogatories submitted, deposition scheduled.

And now there is a renewed sense of urgency for Concerned Citizens, also called Friends of the Anclote River.

"We're still waiting to hear about the writ but . . . now we have to go forward with the 163 action - it's a very expensive case to pursue," Skaaland said.

She said it could cost as much as $15,000 to pay a court reporter to record and transcribe the depositions next month.

Yet the tract along the Anclote River is still vacant, and what was once a hot-button issue has faded from people's minds.

"A lot of people in the community think it's over," Skaaland said.

To raise community consciousness about the ongoing dispute and generate cash, the group sent out a recent mailing and plans to have booths at the upcoming Tarpon Springs Flea Market and the Spring Harvest Art Fair.

Last year, to finance the battle against the city and the nation's largest retailer, the group sold T-shirts, set up a Web site and held a silent auction.

Tens of thousands of dollars were collected.

But Skaaland said the group has already spent more than $100,000. "The legal system is very expensive," she said.