Wal-Mart poses a quandary

Commissioners have problems with another big-box store, but planners say it's okay.

Published May 6, 2007

SPRING HILL - County Commissioner Rose Rocco doesn't like the planned site of the county's fourth Wal-Mart.

It is too close to Powell Middle School and Pristine Place, she said last week. She fears traffic from the store will overwhelm Barclay Avenue, an already crowded collector road.

But on Wednesday, when she and the other County Commissioners must decide whether to approve the master plan for building the proposed 185, 000-square foot store on the site, Rocco said she will probably vote yes.

The reason is simple.

"If there is nothing to legally deny them on, they will sue the county and get what they want and give us less, " she said.

That is the commission's quandary.

Some commissioners and a large number of nearby residents say the store is a bad fit for the neighborhood. They worry about increased levels of traffic and a host of problems that come with having a big box store as a neighbor.

"I believe it's just not the right place for a Wal-Mart or any other big box store for that matter, " said Commissioner David Russell.

Russell, though, plans to vote against the project, and "that's not because there will be a big crowd that shows up against it."

But do the commissioners have legal grounds to deny the project?

The county planning department and the county's Planning and Zoning Commission both have recommended approval.

County staffers, in fact, have given the commission a long list of reasons why Wal-Mart has the clear vested rights to build on the 23-acre parcel east of Barclay and north of Spring Hill Drive.

The property is zoned for commercial use, planning director Ron Pianta wrote in his recommendation for approval of the master plan.

Challenges that opponents might raise based on the county's comprehensive plan are invalid for the simple reason that the project actually predates the comprehensive plan.

The property is part of the Holland Springs development of regional impact, which was approved in 1983. That's two years before the state Legislature passed a law creating and requiring comprehensive plans.

For the same reason, the developer does not have to prove that Barclay Avenue has enough capacity to handle the high volume of traffic that the store is expected to generate, said county engineer Charles Mixson.

Even if it were not exempt, Barclay probably will be deemed to have adequate capacity after it is widened to four lanes, a project that will begin this summer and will be completed before the store can open, he said.

Likewise, the proposal to use the land for a supercenter complies with the comprehensive plan, Pianta wrote in his report.

Finally, when the commissioners make their decision on the master plan they will be bound by the rules of a "quasi-judicial" proceeding. That gives them less power to weigh general concepts such as whether the project is compatible with surrounding areas and requires them to consider the evidence as closely as a judge would, said Assistant County Attorney Jeff Kirk.

"The commission must listen to all sides and cast their votes based on the record, " he said.

That record should be clear, said Wal-Mart representative Quenta Vetttel. "We feel this project meets all the (county's) requirements, " she said.

Still, Russell and County Commissioner Chris Kingsley intend to vote against the project, citing many of the same arguments used by opponents.

Traffic will pour out of the store on Barclay directly across from Pristine Place. One entrance is only 1, 500 feet from Powell and the store will be within a few miles of three other schools.

Even though Pianta has recommended that Wal-Mart be required to build a road connecting the store to Spring Hill Drive, most of the traffic will use Barclay, Russell said.

Once Barclay is widened, the store will use up traffic capacity that was intended to accommodate the exploding residential growth in south-central Hernando.

Pianta and his staff have recommended other ways the project can better fit in with its surroundings, including limiting the store's hours of operation and the amount of light it can shine into neighbors' yards.

Russell answered Wal-Mart's argument that the Holland Springs DRI anticipated the location of the store near the school and the residential area that is now Pristine Place.

"I don't think anyone envisioned four schools in the area or all the (other) residential development, " he said. Nor did the designers of the DRI expect that the stores would be as large as a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

The fact that the planned store is a Wal-Mart rather than a more upscale store such as a Target, for example, has nothing to do with the issue, Kingsley said.

"It's not like I hate Wal-Mart. I wouldn't vote against them because they are Wal-Mart, " he said.

"When it comes to the health, welfare and safety of the community, essentially we can override anything, " Kingsley insisted.

But what if that is not legally true, Rocco asked.

If Wal-Mart's proposal is denied, and the corporation successfully sues Hernando County for violating its vested rights, Rocco said, any hopes of negotiating important concessions from the store will likely go away.

"They'll come back (and sue) and get exactly what they want, " she said.

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352)754-6116.