tampabay.com

Wal-Mart rejects new site survey

By ELENA LESLEY
Published May 24, 2007


TARPON SPRINGS - Five months after the City Commission said it would ask Wal-Mart to allow a third-party wetlands survey of its building site near the Anclote River, the retail giant has said no.

Wal-Mart, in a letter to the city last week, stated that the amount of wetlands on the property had already been determined by Lotspeich and Associates Inc., "a well-respected environmental consultant with extensive experience with wetlands delineations, " and confirmed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Lawyers for the company also noted that it was suspicious of the request because it came after the commission was heavily lobbied by the Friends of the Anclote River, who recommended a University of South Florida wetlands expert who would do the survey for free.

"As a biased party and active opponent to Wal-Mart's approved Supercenter, it would be inappropriate for the Friends of the Anclote River to perform its own wetlands survey on Wal-Mart's property, " the letter said.

Commissioner Robin Saenger said she was not surprised by Wal-Mart's decision but wished it had been different.

"We want to get all questions answered, " she said. "We want everything out in the open."

The request for a new survey came after Friends of the Anclote River highlighted discrepancies of wetland acreage in Wal-Mart's development agreement - 33.5 acres - and the eventual site plan - 28.1 acres.

"There have been discrepancies all along, " said Dory Larsen, a member of the Friends group. "Wal-Mart itself produced two different numbers."

In the recent letter, Wal-Mart said there already is a second opinion: Swiftmud's findings backed up Lotspeich's numbers.

Swiftmud "has already performed an independent verification of the wetlands delineation and acreage amounts on Wal-Mart's property, " the letter reads. "It is difficult to think of a more neutral entity than the state agency charged with regulatory authority regarding this issue."

But Commissioner Peter Dalacos said Swiftmud does not actually conduct a comprehensive wetlands survey.

Members of the Friends agreed. "It's just a cursory verification, " said Chris Hrabovsky. "It's just tragic that they're able to operate in this way, continuing in this line of deception."

Wal-Mart's letter comes about two months after the company and the same consultant, Lotspeich and Associates, came under fire for prematurely relocating gopher tortoises from the site.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission referred the matter to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's office for investigation.

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or 727 445-4167.