Push for Wal-Mart supercenter fizzles
By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
Just before midnight Tuesday, dozens of tired supporters wearing "Wal-Mart Supercenter Yes!" stickers filed into a pink and green bus outside the Pinellas County Courthouse in downtown Clearwater.
They had just endured a four-hour County Commission hearing over a proposed supercenter and residential development on Lake Tarpon in Palm Harbor. More than 30 people, pro and con, had spoken about the project.
The crowd spilled out of the fifth-floor assembly room into another floor and the first-floor lobby. Many came prepared with maps, petitions and letters. One guy even brought a mounted largemouth bass caught in Lake Tarpon.
Wal-Mart employees, some in their blue work vests, emotionally defended their employer.
"I'm in ladies wear, and I love Wal-Mart," said Palm Harbor resident Linda Moyer, 62, who works at the store at U.S. 19 and Alderman Road.
But in the end, the proposed supercenter was unable to overcome its biggest hurdle: criticism that its traffic would further clog U.S. 19.
After sitting through lengthy presentations, commissioners spent little time debating the project before deciding unanimously to reject it. The vote delighted nearby residents who have now defeated two attempts in two years to put a huge store on what is now the Cypress Pointe RV Resort.
"It was the greatest thing," said Bill Gold, 73, who also fought the earlier proposal for a Target and a Lowe's.
This time, the Wilder Corp. of Delaware had proposed to build a 205,000-square-foot supercenter and residential development on 38.7 acres on the east side of U.S. 19, south of Klosterman Road.
Opponents wore black and white stickers that read "Just say no." About 25 people spoke against the plan, and many said they were representing several of their neighbors.
"I don't think I've ever heard of a lamer, more harebrained proposal than this one," said John Thurmond, 44, of Ozona.
Neighbors argued that building a supercenter so close to Lake Tarpon would damage the lake, which is a favorite local fishing spot. Thurmond brought in a mounted bass that weighed more than 17 pounds. It was caught by his grandmother in 1945, he said, and fish in the lake today aren't that big because of runoff from surrounding development.
In addition to opposition from neighbors, the proposal faced criticism from county planners. Two staff reports concluded that allowing the store would be inconsistent with the county's efforts to improve the accident-prone highway.
Attorneys and consultants argued that the project would not overburden the congested highway. They also said Wal-Mart would make a variety of concessions that would help the county.
In one concession, Wal-Mart offered to reduce the density requested on the residential area from 12.5 units per acre to 10.
The corporate giant also proposed prepaying about $650,000 in transportation impact fees to expedite construction of the Belcher Road extension. The company also offered two homeowners groups a total of $255,000 for road improvements.
"I've never had a client in 23 years that I've been as proud of representing in a land-use manner for one simple reason: There was not one thing through the six-month process that your staff asked me to do or that any of you asked me to consider . . . that I took to this client that they didn't approve," said Joel Tew, an attorney for Wal-Mart. "They have been the most willing and they have set the mark so high that if this is a precedent, it's best precedent you will ever have."
Tew also said the store would pay the county $2.9-million in local sales and property taxes, plus payments for road improvements, during its first year. Every year after that, it would generate an estimated $1.3-million in county sales and property taxes. Over 20 years, that would bring $27.6-million to Pinellas County, he said.
The store also would create about 450 jobs and a school internship program.
"Ladies and gentlemen, $27-million over 20 years is a huge financial impact, and that doesn't include the salaries to 500 employees and the school programs and everything else that this brings to the table," Tew said.
But the numbers debated the most concerned traffic.
County staffers said the plan would bring about 7,600 vehicle trips per day to a segment of U.S. 19 that already is used by 72,509 cars and trucks a day. That number already is pushing the highway's capacity of 76,000 daily trips.
Tew argued that planners needed to take into account that the existing Wal-Mart on Alderman Road and the RV resort would be closed. The trips that both of those places now generate should be credited to the supercenter, he said. Doing that would bring the total number of new trips on the highway down to acceptable levels.
Plus, he said, the state Department of Transportation just added two lanes on U.S. 19, making it an eight-lane highway. Having two additional lanes adds 14,000 trips per day to the road's capacity, Tew said.
After hearing about Wal-Mart's proposed concessions and arguments that its store would generate less traffic than the county expects, Commissioner Bob Stewart made a motion to approve the project.
"I was impressed with the proposal with regard to the developer's agreement and the attempt to mitigate the traffic," Stewart said.
But Stewart's motion went nowhere when no other commissioner offered a second, setting up the commission's final vote.
Other commissioners said they were concerned about the traffic. Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd said she was convinced that voting against the proposal was the right thing to do by the residents who spoke in opposition.
"For me, it boiled down to the issues again of transportation and the environment," Todd said. "And I guess even more than those two, the people. Because the people who live there and who are impacted by whatever happens on that land have got to be a major consideration for us."
-- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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