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Suspended permit trips up Wal-Mart

In a highly unusual move, the Army Corps of Engineers suspends the project's wetlands permit it approved in April.

By ROBIN STEIN
Published August 11, 2006


TARPON SPRINGS - It was not the protests, epic City Council meetings or lawsuits, but rather wetlands that just might be this Wal-Mart's fatal flaw.

Just one-third acre of wetlands, no less.

While the small water-logged parcel may not ultimately stop Wal-Mart from building a 204,000-square-foot, Mediterranean-style supercenter here, the project hit a significant snag on Wednesday, when the retailer said it would voluntarily retreat from plans to destroy one-third acre of wetlands on the 74-acre site along U.S. 19.

"What this would mean I would not want to speculate - we just barely made the decision," said Glen Wilkins, a Wal-Mart spokesman. "We have no intention of going to a different site."

"There were some questions raised about whether we had the right permit - does it cover what we are looking for?" Wilkins said. "We've asked for the Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw our permit,"

Wal-Mart's request came as the corps decided to suspend the permit it had approved in April, said John Studt, the corps' chief of permitting in South Florida.

Suspension is an extremely uncommon procedure for the agency, said Studt. This would have been only the second permit to be suspended in four years in South Florida.

Prompting the corps' reversal was a letter from Chris Hrabovsky, a local activist turned political candidate, and an informal coalition of volunteers from Wal-Mart Watch, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife.

Last month, Hrabovsky sent out a memo detailing how the corps had improperly granted Wal-Mart a "Nationwide Permit," an expedited review program for projects that meet specific criteria.

The project failed to meet at least one of those criteria, Hrabovsky argued, because the wetlands borders a protected waterway: the Anclote River.

Surprisingly, the corps agreed with him.

"From time to time we make a mistake and in this case we didn't realize the wetlands were adjacent to an aquatic preserve," said Studt.

While Hrabovsky was pleased by the dramatic about-face, he remains convinced that Wal-Mart's expedited permit was not a mistake but the result of collusion.

"They sort of conveniently ignored it, and so did the corps," he said. "It is inconceivable that the corps could not have realized that this is a protected waterway."

It is a contention ardently denied by both Wal-Mart and the corps.

"We simply made a mistake - not a misrepresentation," said Studt.

Wilkins said Wal-Mart is still considering what to do now, but does not expect the misstep to derail the project.

To go forward, Wal-Mart has two choices. It may submit a new application, which would be subject to an elevated level of scrutiny, including a public comment period.

Or it can redesign plans to avoid damaging wetlands and, in the process, sidestep the permitting process.

But a redesign would bring other regulatory hurdles.

"If they are going to materially change the project - the footprint or design - we would require a modification of their existing permit," said Mike Molligan, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud.

Hrabovsky said his coalition is prepared to fight this to the end.

"Wal-Mart will not break ground on this project," he said.

Robin Stein can be reached at (727) 445-4157 or rstein@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 11, 2006, 06:30:34]


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