Wal-Mart vote turns heated


Published: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 1:19 a.m.

ALACHUA - While the City Commission has voted to go ahead with a nearly $2 million grant that would be used for a road into the site of a proposed Wal-Mart warehouse, it is unclear whether that decision will speed up stalled plans for construction at the site.

The commission voted 3-0 late Wednesday night to proceed with the grant from the Governor's Office of Tourism, Trade & Economic Development and to accept a revised agreement the state office prepared at Wal-Mart's request. The decision followed hours of heated discussion between commissioners and residents that culminated with Commissioner Tamara Robbins leaving the meeting before a vote was taken.

In a letter sent to the city in October, Wal-Mart indicated that it may not build a warehouse on the site off Peggy Road and County Road 235A for at least five years. Although the revised grant agreement approved by the commission gives a deadline of Oct. 12 for "vertical construction" to begin, John Sefton, an attorney for Wal-Mart, said the company has not released an updated timetable.

"The deadlines in the agreement may be pushed back again or, alternatively, the grant could be terminated by (the Office of Tourism, Trade & Economic Development)," Sefton said. "At this juncture, (the Office of Tourism, Trade & Economic Development) basically encouraged Wal-Mart to have the city apply for the grant."

Wynnelle Wilson, chief analyst for the state office, said deadlines in grant agreements are set with the understanding that they may need to be changed.

"It's fairly typical to extend those dates once or twice," she said.

A deadline of Feb. 1 was in place for the grant to be signed and received by the state office. The commission was to vote at its scheduled Wednesday meeting on whether to withdraw its application because deadlines originally set in the application could not be met, City Manager Clovis Watson has said.

That changed after the city received the revised agreement from the state earlier this week. Short notice about the change was at the center of discussions at the Wednesday meeting.

Robbins repeatedly asked that the revised agreement not be discussed because not enough advance notice was given of its existence.

"To substitute one for the other right now, in midstream like this, is risky," Robbins said. She left the meeting minutes later, after saying her questions were not being answered.

Representatives from Wal-Mart said Wednesday night that the city could lose its chance at the grant money if the commission decided not to move forward.

"It's not going to cost us money to do it," Commissioner James Lewis said before the vote. "I don't think it's responsible government to pass up $2 million."

Wal-Mart's plans to build in Alachua have long been the subject of debate in the city. Last year, the commission approved the project and a memorandum of understanding that spelled out what the city would provide.

The memorandum is at the center of a lawsuit filed against the city by the Alachua Leadership Alliance, a group of residents opposed to Wal-Mart opening the warehouse. The suit alleges the memorandum was approved by the commission in violation of its policies.

On Wednesday night, some residents questioned whether voting on the agreement was in violation of state Sunshine Law because the revisions were not mentioned in the agenda released to the public in advance.

"I ask each commissioner to slow themselves down and not get into another lawsuit over procedure," said Kiera Fitzgerald, who lives near the Wal-Mart warehouse site.

Florida's Sunshine Law says government agencies must provide notice of when public meetings will be held and give some idea of what will be discussed at the meeting, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.

Other residents spoke in support of the Wal-Mart project at the meeting and criticized the Alliance, saying the group's views were not reflective of all residents of Alachua.

Mayor Bonnie Burgess had to call for order several times during the proceedings, saying at meeting's end that "our civility rule was certainly violated this evening."

Rachel Kipp can be reached at 374-5086 or kippr@gvillesun.com.

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