That’s how the St. Petersburg Times characterized the Sierra Club’s campaign to stop a Wal-Mart Supercenter slated for a St. Petersburg wetland.
The Florida Chapter’s Suncoast Group teamed up with community groups to successfully beat back the project in June. “Hundreds of citizens from a part of town that was not very plugged into environmental issues got active and worked with us because they realized this was going to damage their neighborhood,” says Suncoast Group activist Karl Nurse.
“What many of us thought would be a routine approval of a terrible wetlands-destroying project turned into a clear victory after ten hours of testimony, questions, and rebuttals at the local Environmental Development Commission,” beams Florida Sierra Club organizer Darden Rice.
The day before the June 15 vote, the proposed Supercenter was approved by the St. Petersburg zoning staff, which advised the Environmental Development Commission to do the same. But the commission surprised everybody by voting 5-2 against the plan.
The hearing drew hundreds of people who packed the hearing chambers and other rooms where the proceeding was televised. Many wore neon green “No Wal-Mart on Wetlands” stickers created by the Suncoast Group. The previous day, a sign-waving event organized by the Sierra Club generated coverage in the Times and local TV stations. And the day of the hearing, “all the networks and both papers (the Times and the Tampa Tribune) covered our win at the Environmental Development Commission,” Rice says.
“We didn’t use emotion. We used fact,” Club activist Doug Davidson told the Times. “This wasn’t about trying to stop a horrible company or stop development. This project just doesn’t fit on this site.”
Wal-Mart had requested a special exception and site-plan approval to develop the Supercenter on “ecologically significant wetlands.” The property is zoned commercial, but the Sierra Club and residents of the Brighton Bay community, just north of the 27-acre site, argued that the project would irrevocably harm the wetlands and worsen traffic on local boulevards.
Wal-Mart claimed its project included traffic “improvements,” but most commissioners were not convinced. Company representatives also argued that the Supercenter would destroy “only 6 acres” of wetlands, which they proposed to mitigate by buying and preserving acreage elsewhere. But Suncoast Group activist Sara McDonald countered that 75 percent of the site qualified as wetlands, and testified that rare and threatened birds have been seen there, including Southern bald eagles, roseate spoonbills, and wood storks. She also pointed out that the National Marine Fisheries Services, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. EPA had recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers deny Wal-Mart’s permit to build on the site.
The victory was won through “an unprecedented local alliance with labor and neighborhood groups,” Rice says. “Kudos go to Club activists Cathy Harrelson, Sandy Culver, Amanda Ransone, and rock star Sara McDonald. Sara’s testimony before the commission shaped the environmental debate and paved the way for Cathy to continue later in the day with specific references to how the development conflicted with the city’s comprehensive plan.” The five commissioners who voted against the Supercenter referred to many of the arguments and reasoning that McDonald and Harrelson presented.
“Coalition work isn’t always easy,” Rice admits. “It takes a great deal of maintenance and brokering, but we learned from each other, pushed each other, and made friends and allies in the process. We became greater than the sum of our parts.”
“This fight truly has helped us build environmental community,” says Karl Nurse.
Editor’s note: Wal-Mart has filed an appeal to the City Council, scheduled for August 23, after this issue of the Planet goes to press. The Sierra Club and coalition partners are intensifying their activities in order to beat back the appeal.
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