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Commission should learn from Sam's Club experience

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By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002

From a news story in Thursday's Times, headlined County not lied to on Sam's Club land, about a June 5 Hernando County Commission meeting:

"Commissioner Chris Kingsley asked (land owner Charles) Taylor why he wanted to rezone from industrial to commercial the 20-acre site next to the Wal-Mart Supercenter (on State Road 50).

"You're not moving forward with any plans to build anything where we'd have to be aware of traffic or water? And you're aware of the frontage road requirement?' Kingsley said.

"Taylor responded that he knew of the frontage road rules, and he was interested in selling the property.

"But you're not ...' Kingsley said.

"Personally, no,' Taylor interrupted. "I'm not a developer.'

"The commission approved the rezoning unanimously with no further discussion."

Two weeks later, Wal-Mart announced it planned to purchase the property, through an intermediary, and plans to build one of its volume sales businesses, Sam's Club, on the site.

Did Taylor lie when questioned about why he was seeking to have his property rezoned?

No. He answered Kingsley's question truthfully, albeit cleverly.

But was Taylor's response misleading? Absolutely, and considering that he was under oath at the time, he walked a fine line.

Would the outcome have been any different if he had been more forthcoming? Probably not, because the commission cannot base its zoning rulings on who the tenant might be. Sure, if the commissioners had known it was Wal-Mart they might have asked some more questions, or found some bureaucratic excuse to delay approval for a few weeks. But, if Taylor's request truly met all requirements under county law, as its staff contended, eventually the commission would have had to give it a green light.

So, why are so many people expressing frustration and anger at this turn of events?

Here's one theory: People aren't ticked off that a commercial enterprise is going to be built on that site. If it was Borders, or Dillard's, or Ross' or an Albertsons supermarket, there wouldn't be a peep.

The reason some folks are upset is simply because it's Wal-Mart and they've just had to endure an extended controversy about the corporation building one of its monoliths on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill. Add that to the fact Wal-Mart is about to open another supercenter on U.S. 41 in Brooksville, and that the Sam's Club will be within shouting distance of the flagship supercenter on State Road 50, and it is easy to argue that the company has reached the point of saturation here.

Another reason some people may be peeved is because the company, while well within the law, has a tendency toward inexplicable secrecy. That's an image the company's real estate division should work on.

Finally, some people's anger is not directed at Wal-Mart, but at the commission and its staff for not being more thorough. They expect the commissioners to know the principals in every tentative land deal in the county, what the land buyers plan to do with the property -- today or a year from now -- and to anticipate what the public's reaction might be to those plans.

Those are excessive expectations. If you disagree, I challenge you to spend a term on the commission and fare any better.

But that doesn't mean the commissioners and their staff couldn't do better, and it is perfectly reasonable for the public to hold their feet to the fire in pursuit of that goal.

First, Kingsley and the other commissioners need to brush up on their interviewing techniques. Their questions need to be well-defined and delivered without apology; if the respondent doesn't answer directly, the commissioners must be persistent and, at times, dismissive.

But it's not just the commissioners who need to ask questions. The Planning and Zoning Commission could have quizzed Taylor about his plans for this particular parcel, or to whom he was selling it. He may not have told them, but at least they would have tried and his refusal to answer may have raised a flag for the commission.

In addition, it would not be improper for employees in the county planning department, who are the front line on rezoning matters and make recommendations to the planning board and commission, to ask some pointed questions. They, too, might not always get the information they seek, but they should be able to get some sense of the applicant's sincerity and then pass any concerns on to their bosses.

For now, though, opponents of the Sam's Club might consider broadening their discussions about how it came to be, to include what it may become. That means ensuring the company adheres to all the requirements of the new landscaping and architectural ordinance, and that adequate utility service exists to accommodate the facility.

Most important, perhaps, is that engineers with the county and state Department of Transportation develop a traffic scheme that will not worsen what is already a dangerous and busy stretch of State Road 50.

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