Officials rebuff Wal-Mart plan

Published May 10, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - Defying the recommendation of its planners, the County Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to deny Wal-Mart's plan to build its fourth supercenter in Hernando on Barclay Avenue near Spring Hill Drive.

The vote drew loud applause from opponents who had packed the commission chamber. Before their decision, commissioners said they had the power to deny the project, even though county planners - and the county Planning and Zoning Commission - found that Wal-Mart had a clear right to build on the 22-acre parcel.

"We're here to analyze things subjectively as well as objectively, " Commissioner David Russell said. "We're here to make subjective decisions based on the facts we heard today."

Among the facts he and other commissioners cited: The property is too close to Pristine Place and other subdivisions; one entrance is only 1, 500 feet from an entrance to Powell Middle School, and three other schools are within 1 1/2 miles of the site.

They sided not only with the residents who attended the meeting but with 2, 100 who signed a petition opposing the store. But commissioners said their vote was not to satisfy potential voters, nor was it directed against Wal-Mart.

"It doesn't have anything to do with the W-word, " Commissioner Diane Rowden said. "It has to do with the health, safety and welfare of our residents."

Representatives for Wal-Mart had earlier argued that the commission did not have the legal right to turn down the project. Commissioners also had a duty to base their decision on the law because the meeting was classified as a quasi-judicial proceeding, said James Porter, the Tampa lawyer representing the retailer.

"This is not a debate about whether Wal-Mart is good or bad, " Porter said. "This is a discussion about a vested development of regional impact that has zoning in place."

The county's comprehensive plan does not apply to the site, Porter said, because the land was approved as part of the Holland Springs development of regional impact in 1983, two years before the passage of the state law that mandated local comprehensive plans.

The planning department, in its recommendation, added that even if the site were not exempt from the comprehensive plan, it would meet its provisions. County Engineer Charles Mixson had said that Barclay could handle increased traffic from the store once it is widened to four lanes later this year.

Wal-Mart offered to make other improvements that it said would improve traffic safety. These included a pedestrian crossing on Barclay near the middle school and a traffic light at Minnie Drive - an entrance to Pristine Place across from the store site.

Residents, however, didn't want to hear it.

"Representatives of Wal-Mart said they want to be a good neighbor. I say, be a good neighbor and move, " said Sylvia Brown of Pristine Place.

Linda Kidwell, who lives on Minnie, made a video of students walking along Barclay after being released from Powell. Not only would the increased traffic from the store - about 9, 100 trips per day, according to county planners - endanger children, she said, it would clog her street.

"Barclay is like a major highway and the traffic and noise on Minnie is deplorable, " she said. "Can you imagine what it will be like when the road opens to Wal-Mart?"

Residents disputed the opinion that the site had prior approval for development. In 1983, the commission could not have been anticipating the construction of a supercenter because Wal-Mart did not begin building them until 1987.

"How could you be vested in 1983 for something that didn't exist?" asked Fred Maier, a Pristine Place resident.

After the meeting, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Quenta Vettel declined to say whether the company would appeal the county's decision in court. But Wal-Mart opponents said they expected a suit, considering that a Wal-Mart lawyer cross-examined nearly every resident who spoke.

County Commissioner Rose Rocco has said the same. Though she voted against the master plan Wednesday, a week ago she said she would probably vote for it because of Wal-Mart's development rights for the property.

If the county lost in court, she said, it would lose the power to extract concessions from the company. For example, the county has asked Wal-Mart to build a road connecting the store to Spring Hill Drive to the south and to limit its hours of operations, neither of which the company has agreed to do. Wal-Mart will "come back (and sue) and get everything they want, " Rocco said last week.

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