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Wal-Mart supercenter gets nod from Tarpon commission

A marathon hearing that began Tuesday night concluded this morning with a 3-2 vote.

By NORA KOCH
Published January 19, 2005


[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
An overflow crowd attended the meeting, which lasted until almost daybreak on Wednesday.
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris leaves City Hall early Wednesday morning after the city commission voted in favor of the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter.

TARPON SPRINGS -- Tarpon Springs City Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a site plan for a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the Anclote River this morning.

Their meeting adjourned at 6:55 a.m. after nearly 12 hours of testimony and debate in City Hall, where the crowd spilled out of the 295-seat auditorium. As the meeting dragged on the crowd thinned, but the heated passion that marked the debate did not wane.

Wal-Mart representatives and experts argued they have a legal right to build on the site, on the east side of U.S. 19 a half-mile south of Beckett Way.

Opponents, who raised nearly $15,000 to hire their own experts, pleaded with commissioners to turn down the project. They cited a litany of reasons, including expert opinion that the property is zoned incorrectly for a big-box retail center.

Tarpon Springs planning staff and the city attorney and the Planning and Zoning Board advised the commission to approve the plan. City attorney John Hubbard said if the commission denied the plan, the city would likely face a lawsuit.

The meeting, which started at 6:30 Tuesday night, stretched into the wee hours as 62 protesters gave impassioned pleas against the project. They cited a zoning discrepancy, errors made by the city and concerns about the environment, traffic, light and noise pollution and the citys distinct character.

"I spent my life depicting the beauty of Florida you have that right in front of you and you are going to replace it with a monstrosity of a building?" pleaded renowned artist Christopher Still, who lives in Tarpon Springs.

Wal-Mart supporters filled several rows in the auditorium. Dozens of workers from nearby stores, some still in their blue smock uniforms, showed up to the meeting carrying blue signs that said "Wal-Mart yes."

Mark Telfer, manager of the Palm Harbor store, said the employees were paid to attend the meeting.

New Port Richey store manager Eric Hirons was among eight people to testify on behalf of Wal-Mart during the public-comment portion. He told commissioners his corporation is a good neighbor.

"Wal-Mart has taught me to care about the community," Hirons said, noting that he is involved with a Rotary Club and a youth basketball coach.

The 204,000 square-foot store would include a drive-through pharmacy, garden center, supermarket and tire and lube station. The project also includes two more parcels, which will be developed separately. One is anticipated to be for a restaurant and the other could be office space or residential.

Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris and commissioners David Archie and Jim Archie voted to approve the site plan. Commissioners Peter Nehr and Peter Dalacos voted against the project.

Before banging the gavel, Billiris noted that she now holds the record for presiding over the longest City Commission meeting ever, according to longtime city watchdog Jessie Burke.

"We had a lot of residents that had to speak, and wanted to speak, and I felt they had a rigtht to be heard," a sleepy Billiris said of her record. "I'm impressed and proud of the people that did stay with us throughout the entire night.

"I know some are not pleased with the outcome but they have to realize that it was not easy for any of us."

For Wal-Mart, the next step is to wade through the permitting process with several agencies, then go on to public bidding. If all goes as planned, the new supercenter could open in as soon as one year, said Wal-Mart spokesman Glen Wilkins.

Nora Koch can be reached at nkoch@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 19, 2005, 09:01:01]


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