The Green Mountain state has not been friendly territory for big box stores. Home Depot, the world’s large “home improvement” chain, has 4 big box stores in Vermont — almost all of them hard fought battles. In Williston, Vermont, Home Depot quietly slipped in only after a bitter battle with Wal-Mart was over. In Rutland, Vermont, the anti-Home Depot battle raged for years. In Bennington, Vermont, strong anti-Home Depot sentiment also surfaced. In Brattleboro, Home Depot went into the footprint of the store once occupied by an Ames Department store. Now controversy is dogging the retailer’s attempt to build a 5th store in the tiny community of Berlin, Vermont, with a population of less than 3,000. Even the nearby capitol of Vermont, Montpelier, has only 8,000 people. But Home Depot has submitted plans to open a 106,000 s.f. building with a 28,000 s.f. fenced-in garden center on 31 acres of land owned by an Ohio company. The store would sit in an existing mall with a Price Chopper grocery store, where a dead Ames Department store used to be. Last summer, the town of Berlin’s Development Review Board approved plans to demolish the 78,400 s.f. Ames and existing retail space, and replace it with a stand-alone big box store. Now Vermont’s Act 250 land use review process has begun, and a regional District 5 Environmental Commission is hearing the case. City officials in Montpelier have been allowed to join the case as a party, because of their concern over the impact of stormwater runoff on a branch of the Winooski River. The state of Vermont requires that 20% of the stormwater be collected and treated on site, according to the Times Argus newspaper. A Home Depot hazardous materials specialist told the Commission that pesticides, fertilizers and other toxic materials sold at the store would not end up in the Winooski River. He said Home Depot has an aggressive cleaning and inspection program designed to keep torn bags of fertilizer, pesticide or other materials in the garden center from creating an environmental problem. An attorney for the City of Montpelier, told the Commission he had a long list of queries for Home Depot, because, “What I want the commission to understand is soup to nuts what this construction is going to entail and ultimately what the effect on streams will be.” He asked Home Depot, “Am I correct in my assumption that, notwithstanding the applicant’s best efforts, some pollutants other than sediment will be captured by the stormwater system?” Home Depot agreed that this was possible, but said the company takes steps to keep that from happening. Another party in the case, the Montpelier Downtown Community Association, will question the applicant once the hearings reconvene this week. The Commission under Act 250 will be asking how the store will affect public costs, such as the local road network. It is clear from the process thus far, that Home Depot has many miles to go before they can count on a 5th store in Vermont. The city of Montpelier tried to get party status in the Home Depot case on the grounds that this proposal would have an adverse impact on the city’s historic downtown. But the District 5 Commission would not allow them to intervene on those grounds. The fate of an anti-Home Depot citizens group is still in limbo. Attorney David Grayck, representing Citizens for Community and Local Prosperity, said a hearing on the group’s appeal will be held in Environmental Court this coming week. CCLP is asking that the court expand its ability to participate in Act 250 hearings by granting it party status in areas previously denied by the commission.
While all this plays out, The Time Argus interviewed the owner of Nelson’s ACE Hardware in Barre, who says his family-owned hardware store will take a hit if Home Depot opens. But like most merchants, Bob Nelson tried to put a brave face on his fears. “I think they will probably help the economy in the long run,” he told the newspaper. “Home Depot is going to offer the goods that people are now driving out of town for. I’m hoping the dollars they’re going to drag away from Nelson’s we’ll make up by having more people in the marketplace.” To attempt to differentiate his product line, Nelson recently expanded his housewares selection. “We do what we do, and they do what they do, and hopefully that will be a plus for central Vermont,” Nelson concluded. “We’re going to have to trade on what we’ve always traded on: service, name recognition and, in our case, we’re locally owned.” Nelson will learn the hard way that customer service and being locally-owned will not be enough to save his business. But by the time he realizes this, it will be too late. When Home Depot kills a locally-owned business, they’ve been know to celebrate with a cake in the employee’s lounge.