Wall-to-Wall Wal-Marts: Where Will It End?
by Matthew J. Aresco

Everywhere you turn lately you’ll probably see one. A pristine lake? Not quite. A rich old forest? Definitely not. How about a Wal-Mart Supercenter - a 250,000-square-foot monstrosity surrounded by acres of pavement and bright lights? Unfortunately, yes.

But wait, could a Wal-Mart Supercenter actually be built in the Lake Jackson drainage basin, an ecosystem in Leon County protected by the most stringent zoning, stormwater and environmental regulations? Of course not, you say, especially since almost $20 million has recently been spent on the restoration of Lake Jackson (muck removal and land acquisition to improve water quality) to correct the effects of more than two decades of commercial, residential and transportation development in the basin.

Not so fast. A legal loophole called “vested development rights” could give developers the opportunity to construct a Wal-Mart Supercenter on North Monroe Street at the location of the current Sam’s Warehouse Club store, which will soon be closing and moving elsewhere. Basically, this means that developers could use a planned unit development (PUD) approved by the Leon County Planning Department in 1979 to exercise development rights on the property, providing they can meet all current stormwater and environmental regulations.

So what is the problem with building a new store in the footprint of where the old store was located? Nothing, except that the size of the Sam’s store pales in comparison to the megalomart proportions of a Wal-Mart Supercenter and its adjacent parking areas, and Lake Protection zoning now prohibits large-scale commercial development in the Lake Jackson basin.

What does any good developer do in this situation? Clear more land, of course. Big deal if we lose another 25 acres of pine trees!

The forest behind Sam’s is not your run-of-the-mill planted pine or old-field habitat, though. The current Sam’s store is perched right on the edge of the steep slopes of an imperiled natural community in Florida called slope forest and associated wetlands known as seepage streams. This unusual and high quality successional forest is dominated by beech, southern magnolia, sweet bay magnolia and oaks, with many very large trees in the ravines that escaped historic harvest and are probably 100-150 years old.

This habitat supports a high diversity of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. High on the slopes of the ravines within sight of the Sam’s store parking lot, cool clear water seeps from the ground under lush ferns and huge root structures of giant beech and magnolia trees and collects in small streams farther down the slopes. This seeping ground water eventually flows into a small creek and empties into the Megginnis Arm of Lake Jackson about a mile away.

These sensitive forested ravine habitats in the Lake Jackson basin are becoming too rare to destroy them carelessly for a Wal-Mart and its large holding pond.

Direct development of the forest behind Sam’s to accommodate a Wal-Mart Supercenter would destroy and fragment a large portion of the slope forest ravine system and seepage stream communities. Loss of this rare slope forest would not only occur with the construction of the Wal-Mart store and parking area, but also by building the massive stormwater retention pond on the property, which is now required to meet Lake Jackson’s Stormwater Protection standards.

Even if the steepest ravines were not developed and were protected as “natural areas,” the ravine ecosystem would be severely damaged by redevelopment of the Sam’s site. The loss of adjacent tree cover and root structure, along with the great increase in impervious surface water runoff would inevitably mean gully erosion and clay siltation. Impervious pavement up-slope could also block groundwater recharge areas for the seepage streams, resulting in dry stream-beds. Habitat degradation would likely occur both during and after construction. Gully erosion would result in the loss of the large remaining trees along the slope and clay-silt inundation of the stream-bed from stormwater flow off parking areas. Not a pretty picture, but hey, we get another Wal-Mart -- a place to save a few dollars while traffic ties up North Monroe Street and nearby small businesses fade away.

Wait a minute, you say, vested development rights must expire at some point. They can’t continue indefinitely through time? You are correct. The original vested rights certification on the 21-acre undeveloped portion of the property (known as the Hastings property) expired in 1992.
End of story, right? Nope, 11 years after the property owner failed to meet the conditions required for vested status, the Leon County Board of County Commissioners adopted an ordinance to give him another chance.

Coincidentally, this reconsideration began exactly at the same time last year that Wal-Mart came knocking and now wants the undeveloped property and the previously expired development rights. I bet lots of ordinary people and business owners would love to get a decade or more of extensions on statutory deadlines, but they would no doubt be laughed out of the Commission chambers.

How do they do it, you ask? How do big corporations like Wal-Mart they bypass zoning and environmental regulations that seem strong on paper? The answer is painfully simple. Money begets money, and they can hire the highest priced attorneys and development lobbyists in Florida to run legal circles around most local governments, their well-intended regulations and their tax-paying citizens.

So the next time you see at a Wal-Mart Supercenter or a Lowe’s Store being built on what was forested wetlands or other environmentally sensitive habitat, don’t be too surprised.

But this time they’ve gone too far and those of us who are dedicated to the protection of Lake Jackson and its remaining unique upland habitats will not sit by and watch the big trees come crashing down, clear streams fouled by clay soil, and a unique natural community irreparably degraded.

The vote on this issue was postponed until May 13th, when it will come before the County Commission again. In the meantime, please write or e-mail all the Leon County Commissioners (www.co.leon.fl.us/bcc/bcc.asp) and ask them to deny the regranting of vested development rights on both the Sam’s Store and Hastings’ properties.

For more information contact:
Matthew J. Aresco, aresco (at) bio.fsu.edu
or visit the Gwynndale Neighborhood website at www.geocities.com/gwynndalewebsite