Wal-Mart opponents, board show strengthA Times Editorial
Published February 1, 2008
The people who serve on Tarpon Springs' Board of Adjustment aren't elected. They are volunteers, and usually they work in relative obscurity, helping to resolve disputes between residents and the enforcers of the city code book.
But on Jan. 16, those Board of Adjustment members were at center stage, facing a decision as stressful as any handled by the city's elected officials. They had to decide whether Wal-Mart, with its money, power and phalanx of lawyers and experts, would have to start over in its effort to gain approval to build a supercenter on the banks of the Anclote River.
The board deserves accolades for hanging tough, listening carefully and debating civilly. After a three-hour hearing, a majority of the board ruled against Wal-Mart. It was a decision that many an average person would have reached when considering the evidence.
At issue was whether changes Wal-Mart has made to its plan are "minor" or "major." If the changes were defined as major, Wal-Mart would have to go through a public hearing and get its proposal for the store reapproved by the City Commission. Having endured a historic, all-night public hearing three years ago to win commission approval for the project, Wal-Mart hoped to avoid doing it again.
If the changes were defined as minor, Wal-Mart could just proceed.
City staff already had defined the changes Wal-Mart made as minor. But a well-organized group of steadfast opponents appealed that decision to the Board of Adjustment, contending that the changes were major.
Opponents had forced the change in Wal-Mart's plan in the first place. They discovered that the Army Corps of Engineers had improperly given Wal-Mart a permit to build over a wetland. The Army Corps agreed and withdrew the permit. Wal-Mart had to change its site plan to avoid the wetland.
The amended plan included a change in vehicle accesses, a land-use change on a portion of the property and encroachments into previously identified buffers protecting the Anclote River and wetlands. After hearing all the evidence, the Board of Adjustment voted 3-2 that the changes were major.
If Wal-Mart still wants to build the supercenter on that site, it must either appeal the board's decision to circuit court and win or succeed in getting the City Commission to approve the project again after the city has endured three years of public criticism for having approved it in the first place.
Wal-Mart might have enormous resources, but it is average people like those in the opposition group and those on the Board of Adjustment who have proven to be the stalwarts in this case.