Wal-Mart should let light shine on wetlands

By Times editorial
Published May 25, 2007

Wal-Mart has always claimed that it can be trusted to be a good neighbor and asset to the community of Tarpon Springs. Message to Wal-Mart: If you want to be trusted, don't act like you've got something to hide.

Wal-Mart ought to help its neighbors resolve a concern they have about wetlands on the acreage where the retailer plans to build a new supercenter. Instead, Wal-Mart has declined to allow access to the property.

Civic activists and Wal-Mart opponents have kept a close eye on plans for the supercenter and, to their credit, have uncovered several problems that have resulted in delays and site plan changes. So city commissioners listened when those activists called attention to a discrepancy in Wal-Mart's account of the wetlands acreage on the environmentally sensitive site along the Anclote River.

Originally, Wal-Mart said there were 33.5 acres of wetlands. However, its site plan shows only 28.1 acres. Wal-Mart says the original number was wrong and the 28.1 acres later were calculated accurately by Lotspeich and Associates Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Winter Park. However, community activists are suspicious; they fear that Wal-Mart destroyed 5 acres of wetlands.

A local activist group, Friends of the Anclote River, appealed to city commissioners to ask Wal-Mart to allow a third party to inspect the property. The group even suggested a local expert who would survey the wetlands acreage for free.

But now, five months after the City Commission made the request, Wal-Mart has said no. Wal-Mart says a third party, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, already has confirmed Lotspeich's number in the course of reviewing plans for the supercenter. But opponents say Swiftmud does not do a full inspection during that review.

Wal-Mart's refusal to allow a full inspection of the wetlands on the property will only further heighten community suspicions. Thanks to the activists keeping an eye on the project, Wal-Mart and its consultant recently were caught prematurely removing gopher tortoises from the site, and the Army Corps of Engineers was found to have improperly used a quick review process to grant a particular permit to Wal-Mart. The permit was suspended after the Army Corps received new information.

Wal-Mart's refusal to allow outsiders to check the site is simply unacceptable. Government regulators and the Tarpon Springs City Commission should press harder for access.

If Wal-Mart does not want someone recommended by the store's opponents to do the onsite survey - and it isn't unreasonable for Wal-Mart to be hesitant about that - then the parties should seek an alternative. Perhaps Swiftmud or the Army Corps, both agencies that now have a full awareness of the site's importance to Tarpon Springs area residents, could do the job.