Tide turns against Wal-Mart

Sentiment against the retailer was late to arrive here, but has. Opponents give several reasons.

Published May 13, 2007

SPRING HILL - When Arline Erdrich rallied opposition against a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in 1999, her sanity and patriotism were questioned, and before one meeting, her life was threatened.

"Somebody called and said, 'You better watch out because we're going to have people there with guns, ' " said Erdrich, founder of the Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl and the Environment.

"Not only were people saying Wal-Mart was great, but that we were crazy. They said we were anti-American."

Eight years later, support for Wal-Mart in Hernando has waned and fighting it has gone mainstream. Dozens of residents attended a meeting on Wednesday, when the County Commission considered a plan to build what would have been Hernando's fourth supercenter, on Barclay Avenue near Spring Hill Drive.

All of the residents who spoke opposed the project. All of the commissioners voted against it.

Though opponents were careful to say they had nothing against Wal-Mart and commissioners said their votes were based on concerns about increased traffic and residents' safety, not everyone believes them.

The vote was clearly political, said Anna Liisa Covell, a member of the county Planning and Zoning Commission, which in April recommended approving the plan for the store. Its members agreed with county planners that the retailer had a clear right to build on the Barclay site.

"If this were a JCPenney or a Target store, I don't think it would have been a problem, " Covell said. "It's a nationwide thing that Wal-Mart is political poison."

'Greed gone berserk'

This trend was late to arrive in Hernando County.

In 1991, when the company announced plans to build its distribution center in Ridge Manor West, county Commissioner June Ester said: "I can't think of any negative impact at all."

The first supercenter on State Road 50 opened in 1996 with shoppers raving about the variety of merchandise. The Brooksville supercenter was approved without controversy in 2001, and members of the Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl and the Environment, which fought the plan to build the store on U.S. 19, were mostly coastal residents concerned about the loss of bear habitat.

Wal-Mart's declining public image is only one of several reasons for Wednesday's vote, Erdrich and others said.

The 185, 000-square-foot store planned for Barclay would have been across the street from the Pristine Place residential development and within 11/2 miles of 6, 600 residential lots, opponents said. Four schools, including Powell Middle School, are in the same area.

That contrasts with the store on U.S. 19, Erdrich said, which "was not impinging on people's property and their roads. It was not causing them any discomfort."

Also, as counties grow they usually become more selective about development, said Gary Schraut, a Brooksville real estate broker. While Hernando business leaders lobbied hard for the distribution center, he said, "the city of Winter Haven fought like hell to keep that out of their community. We were like, 'Hey, these might not be the best jobs in the world, but (Ridge Manor) doesn't have any jobs at all.' "

Now, on the west side of the county, residents are feeling the effect of a retail practice called "saturation marketing."

While supercenters were once built 15 miles apart or more, company policy now allows for new stores to be built as close as 2 miles from existing ones, the retailer has said.

Besides three supercenters, the company operates a Sam's Club wholesale outlet in Hernando, giving the county more stores per capita than any of its neighbors and one of the highest concentrations of Wal-Mart-owned stores in the state.

That is one of several legitimate reasons that political opinion has turned against the company, said Linda Prescott, who also fought the U.S. 19 store. Wal-Mart has been cited by the federal government for water pollution and hiring undocumented workers; it has been successfully sued for forcing employees to work off the clock.

Wal-Mart "epitomizes greed gone berserk, " Prescott said.

Wal-Mart cries foul

Such sentiments are unfair, company representatives have said, and have been spread by union-funded groups such as Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now, which supported residents in their fight against the store on Barclay.

And regardless of the commissioners' opinions about the company, they had no grounds to vote down plans for the Barclay store, Wal-Mart's lawyer, James Porter, said Wednesday. The land had been zoned for commercial use and is exempt from the county comprehensive plan because it was approved as part of a larger development in 1983, before the comp plan was written, Porter said.

Though the company has not decided whether to challenge the decision in court, spokeswoman Quenta Vettel said Friday, County Attorney Garth Coller said he expects a suit.

Wal-Mart has a good chance of winning, said Joe Mason, a Brooksville lawyer who handles land-use issues.

In a 1993 case - Snyder vs. the Brevard County Commission - a judge's ruling set standards for land-use decisions in Florida that have applied ever since, Mason said.

The ruling requires commissioners, like jurors, to base their decisions on information backed by documentation or expert witnesses - "competent, substantial evidence, " as the ruling calls it.

That does not include general concerns about safety mentioned by several commissioners, Mason said. Nor does it allow commissioners to "analyze things subjectively, " as Commissioner David Russell claimed before casting his vote Wednesday.

"Snyder says, 'Uh-uh. No way, ' " Mason said.

Will company sue?

Russell said he expects the company to sue, but hopes it won't.

He thinks that by challenging the county's decision, the company might add to the negative image that helped defeat the project.

If Wal-Mart pushes a store that was opposed by surrounding residents and voted down unanimously by commissioners, he said, "I think (a suit) could cause a problem for Wal-Mart."

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