After four hours of testimony Tuesday night from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. representatives and a lawyer and former city planner representing residents appealing a proposed Walmart Supercenter, Sarasota city commissioners had not even heard from one of the 49 residents signed up to speak.
Commissioners decided to continue the appeal hearing to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26.
During the first round of the appeal Tuesday, Wal-mart Stores Inc. representatives sought support for their 98,000-square-foot supercenter while opponents argued the project was not allowed in the city’s zoning code.
Wal-mart Stores Inc. representatives presented new plans for the supercenter, which showed the addition of a pedestrian pathway behind the store. They defended the project as a job creator and an improvement upon the current Ringling Shopping Center. Publix had been the anchor tenant for the center, but the store closed in November 2011.
Architect Michael Blinn said the design for the Ringling Shopping Center is not the typical Walmart footprint; he cited a glass-and-metal front entrance and additional landscaping as examples.
“We were directed by Wal-Mart to not do the standard prototypical design,” Blinn said. “We have come up with a nice little layout here that I am proud of.”
Robert Turffs, the lawyer representing the six residents appealing the store, said the proposed supercenter is not allowed in the zoning classification for the Ringling Shopping Center because it is considered a department store.
Blinn showed paint chips to illustrate the color of the building façade. A planner representing Wal-Mart said the store is considered a “large store” but not a department store.
“You talked about the colors,” Turffs asked the Walmart architect. “How does that pertain to the site plan?”
Turffs argued that the city’s zoning code prohibits a store classified as a “department store” at the shopping center’s 9.7-acre property zoned as Commercial Shopping Center Neighborhood (CSC-N).
“Walmart historically called itself a department store. The fact that it is calling itself something else is because it is trying to fit into a zoning code it does not fit,” Turffs said to applause from opponents of the store in the audience at the City Commission chambers.
On an overhead projector, Turffs showed a Yellow Pages ad and another advertisement for new Walmarts opening around the country; both described the stores as a “department store.”
Jim Porter, the lawyer for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said the entire argument about whether Walmart is a department store is a “red herring.”
“We first met with staff Jan. 11, 2011 — more than two years ago,” Porter said. “We presented our project. We were told the process would be a site-plan approval by the planning board. We relied on that.”
Porter said the issue of the store’s classification had not come before the 3-2 Planning Board vote to approve the store’s site plan in November 2012.
By the numbers
49 — Number of residents signed up to speak at the continued hearing.
98,000 — Size of the proposed Walmart in square feet
2011 — In January, Wal-mart Stores Inc. representatives first met with city planners to go over their plans for a supercenter.
15 months — Number of months the Ringling Shopping Center has been without an anchor tenant since Publix closed.