Wal-Mart vote an integrity issue

Published April 26, 2007

Why does the Hernando County Commission's vote on a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter on Barclay Avenue matter?

Some media accounts have characterized this as a "not in my back yard" battle between the locals and the corporate giant. Other coverage has suggested that it's really a matter of snobbery; that if the store were Target or Dillard's, opposition would disappear.

Both are convenient and both fail to recognize the gravity of the issue. The vote on this matter on May 9 will have impact in all corners of the county, far beyond Silverthorn, Pristine Place, Suncoast Villas or Sterling Hill. It will produce the answer to a question every resident needs to know, whether they live in Hernando Beach or Ridge Manor or Spring Hill:

Is Hernando County capable of managing growth, or, does growth manage Hernando County?

When the commissioners gather May 9 they will decide whether a big-box retail store will be built on Barclay Avenue. The site is in the middle of a residential neighborhood and approximately 1,500 feet from a school; and Wal-Mart indicates a store at this site would increase the number of vehicles on Barclay by 15,000 daily.

Many residents who live near Barclay and drive on it every day are astonished the site is even being considered. Yet, the Planning and Zoning Commission said it had little choice but to approve the application, given that the site is classified as "general commercial" zoning, which it received in 1983. Incidentally, almost nobody lived here then. Of course, thousands of families live in this area today, but the zoning commission had no time to consider that detail.

Unfortunately, county zoning laws being what they are, the zoning commission was unable to address the distinctions between the potential impact of a 185,000-square-foot, big-box retailer and smaller businesses in the area, like a China Wok.

But we are hoping county commissioners will exercise prudent judgment and act in accordance with what the county's comprehensive plan intends, which is to protect residents from commercial enterprises that are incompatible and unsafe.

Hernando County has a "Mission Statement." It says: "To provide and enhance quality programs, services and facilities that reflect the goals of the community while always promoting health, safety, public welfare and quality of life for our citizens."

When the applicant stood before the Planning and Zoning Commission recently, its attorney, James J. Porter, said, "We want to be good neighbors." That's welcome news because good neighbors listen to each other.

If they listen to the neighbors - approximately 6,000 families living in 11 nearby communities - they'll learn we don't want any store that will increase our traffic by 15,000 vehicles daily. Barclay is the wrong place. How do we know? We know because we live here and because the Hernando County comprehensive plan says so. The comprehensive plan (Policy 1.01N) says heavy commercial districts "must not be located proximate to residential housing and must be accessible to arterial or major collector roadways without requiring use of residential roads."

What's the right place? We recommend that Wal-Mart choose a site that is compatible for its volume on a major commercial corridor such as U.S. 19, U.S. 41 or State Road 50, in compliance with the county's comprehensive plan.

The comprehensive plan also states in Policy 1.01H (Page 12) that it seeks to "protect existing and future residential areas from encroachment of incompatible uses that are destructive to the character and integrity of the residential environment."

Clearly, directing 15,000 vehicles daily through any residential community cannot be in the public interest. It is indefensible.

That's why it's important for all county residents to watch how the commissioners vote. This is an opportunity for their votes to protect the public interest and demonstrate their commitment to responsible growth management. It also is just as important for all Hernando County residents to recognize the larger issue at stake: the integrity of the county.

Gregg Laskoski lives in Spring Hill. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.