The crowd was much smaller at Tarpon Springs City Hall Tuesday night. The level of emotion was much lower than it was in January 2005, when the City Commission approved a controversial Wal-Mart Supercenter project for a picturesque site along the Anclote River.
But the issues were just as important and even more complicated Tuesday, when the City Commission, this time with three new members, again had to consider whether the Wal-Mart project could proceed.
Legal jargon fell like baseball-sized hail inside the commission chambers as lawyers for three sides - Wal-Mart's, the city's and an opposition group's - argued their points. But the commissioners did a good job of keeping up and trying to reach a decision they felt was supported by logic and common sense. They didn't get lost in the weeds and they were not intimidated by lawyers on any side.
Commissioner Peter Dalacos and Vice Mayor Robin Saenger did a particularly commendable job of analyzing the information they had been given, asking focused questions, and then explaining their views.
The commission had two Wal-Mart items on its agenda Tuesday.
First, the commission needed to decide whether Wal-Mart's certificate of concurrency has expired. The 1985 Growth Management Act requires the certificate to confirm that adequate infrastructure such as roads exists to handle the demands of a new project.
Wal-Mart was granted its certificate in January 2005.
The second item on the commission's agenda was to vote on Wal-Mart's amended site plan. The original site plan was approved in January 2005 by a previous City Commission in an all-night public hearing, but the site plan has been changed by Wal-Mart.
Tuesday the commission never even took up the site plan issue after voting 3-2 that Wal-Mart's certificate of concurrency has expired. Commissioners Dalacos, Saenger and Susan Slattery voted in the majority, and Chris Alahouzos and Mayor Beverley Billiris maintained that the certificate has not expired.
It wasn't an easy decision for anyone. The city's code states that a certificate of concurrency expires a year after it is granted unless an "alternate phasing plan" for the project is approved by the commission at the time of site plan review.
The city attorney and the city planning director said they believe the commission, in effect, approved an alternate phasing plan in 2005 when it reached a development agreement with Wal-Mart that gave the retailer 10 years to complete its entire project.
However, Wal-Mart opponents and some city commissioners argued the development agreement was not an "alternate phasing plan" and that those words were never used. Saenger said it defied logic to think that the former City Commission would have given Wal-Mart a 10-year pass on concurrency, especially since the project's controversial traffic study was based on 2003 traffic statistics. Opponents presented evidence that traffic on U.S. 19 near the Anclote River site has increased substantially since 2003.
After battling for almost four years, it appears that Wal-Mart has neither a valid certificate of concurrency nor a usable site plan. The retailer could challenge the commission's decision, or start over.
One has to wonder how much longer Wal-Mart will consider this a battle worth fighting.