TARPON SPRINGS – Nearly a decade ago, Tarpon Springs found itself in a citywide battle: should it open its arms to Walmart?
In January 2005, the City Commission approved a development agreement with Walmart to purchase over 70 acres of land on the Anclote River, located at the intersection of U.S. 19 and Live Oak Street. Twenty months later, the Army Corps of Engineers permit was suspended because of the wetland destruction the supercenter would cause. Two years of all-night Commission meetings and screaming matches later, in October 2008, the City Commission voted 3-2 that the concurrency certificate had expired, effectively killing the project.
Now, the land is for sale again, and Tarpon Springs is looking to avoid another Walmart fiasco.
LoopNet has the property listed at 74.12 acres, 28.28 acres of which is wetland and surface waters. In 2005, environmentalists argued that the wetland areas nesting bald eagles made the property ill suited for a 203,000-square-foot retail center.
Although there is no price online, Daniel Earles, the listing agent with The Shopping Center Group LLC, said the property is listed at $8 million. Walmart purchased the property on April 12, 2005, for $8,350,000, and the Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s Office most recently assessed the land in 2012 at $4,441,913,
So far, Earles said he primarily has seen interest from national homebuilders looking to develop single-family homes.
“It’s a beautiful site with good attributes for that kind of development, rather than a big parking lot and a huge building,” he said. “I think you could do something with that property and not have it be an eyesore.”
At the Sept. 3 Tarpon Springs City Commission meeting, commissioner Townsend Tarapani questioned whether the city could afford to buy the property, further allowing the Commission more control of its future. But city manager Mark LeCouris said it just isn’t in the budget.
“We could put in maybe $1 million,” LeCouris said in the meeting, “but not $8 million.”
The largest plot of land in Tarpon Springs, more than 70 acres on the Anclote River is highly sought-after property. But the Commission isn’t just looking for the highest bidder; they’re looking for something that the people of Tarpon Springs want and need.
In a later interview, Tarapani talked about the public outcry in 2005, clearly visible in City Commission meetings that lasted until 7 a.m.
“When there’s that much public interest, it needed to be brought to light as far as the property being for sale,” he said. “It would be a different debate if it was 70 acres out in a cow patch rather than 70 acres by the Anclote River.”
Vice Mayor Susan Slattery was on the City Commission when Walmart first came looking to build the supercenter, and she said she hopes to avoid another battle like that. She learned from “the Walmart experience,” she said, and she knows the Commission will work with whomever buys the property.
“We’ve asked the staff to bring forward, in the next couple of months, everything about the property: what are our options and what are the new buyer’s options?” she said. “It’s all so we’re aware and the public’s aware.”
However, the Commission legally doesn’t have a say in who’s allowed to buy the property, a point that Slattery said she wants everyone to remember.
“We don’t own that property,” she said. “Somebody can build whatever they want.”
Currently, the property is zoned for general business, with a conditional use for residential. A full residential zoning would require a public hearing, which is where the City Commission would come in.
Tarpon Springs resident Chris Hrabovsky has been working with the Friends of the Anclote River group, as well as the Trust for Public Land, to turn the 74-acre property into a park since 2005. Hrabovsky said he is looking to the city, county and state to put forward money to buy the property from Walmart and prevent the land from being destroyed.
“Anybody who would try to build anything there should do their due diligence and know they can’t,” he said. “They should know that they’ll be scrutinized to such a high degree that they won’t be able to build a popsicle stick there.”
A self-proclaimed preservationist, Tarapani said he wants to see the land left undeveloped. But if not, he said he has high hopes for the future owner.
“The City Commission,” he said, “will make sure the project is of Tarpon Springs quality.”