In what has been billed as the longest continuing big box battle over one piece of land, the Wal-Mart fight in St. Albans, Vermont — which began in 1993 — was back in the headlines this week. The Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), which is representing plaintiffs opposing the Wal-Mart, filed a “Motion to Alter” a decision issued by the Environmental Court (EC) on January 20, 2010 because factual errors. The Environmental Court issued a 55 page decision affirming the developer’s right to proceed in St. Albans — but with a lot of financial strings attached. The EC required Wal-Mart to make payments to the city of St. Albans — which is adjacent to the Town of the same name — to compensate for economic harm that will befall the city’s core downtown area. Depending on when construction starts, developer Jeff Davis will be required to pay up to $400,000 to the city. The developer also will be required to buy and renovate at least 4 properties in the city’s downtown, spending at least $1.5 million to buy the properties, plus at least $1 million more to renovate them. Davis must agree to be a major development partner in the city’s downtown core project, and contribute $50,000 to that effort. In addition, the EC required that the Wal-Mart cannot have more than 10,000 s.f. of retail floor space devoted to food items. If Wal-Mart wants to exceed that figure, it must file an application for an amendment to its Act 250 permit. Davis also must follow through on his promise to pay the town of St. Albans for any municipal costs that exceed the amount of taxes being paid by the project. Davis also agreed to pay for 8 major roadway improvements. Because the project will negatively impact 58 acres of prime agricultural land, Davis agreed to an “agricultural mitigation agreement” that requires him to pay $167,622.50 to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to help conserve farmland. The limit on food sales was a controversial issue during the hearings. Davis told the Board that his Wal-Mart would not be a superstore, and would not carry groceries or have a gas station. But Wal-Mart is no longer building discount stores — a fact the EC seems to have missed. In a story from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dated October 22, 2009, it was reported that “in addition to supercenters, Wal-Mart operates general merchandise discount stores, a format it is no longer adding to its store base.” This week, the VNRC told the Burlington Free Press that the court made some factual errors, such as stating that the abutting Hudak farm, which will be affected by the huge development, is not in the town of St.Albans — when in fact the Hudaks pay property taxes to St. Albans. The VNRC said the court ruling also “seems to equate the fact that commercial uses exist in the area of Hukak Farm with a conclusion that the proposed Wal-Mart will be compatible with the Hudak Farm operation. This conclusion ignores the fact that while the applicant did address the compatibility of the project with many commercial uses (some farther from the project than Hudak Farm) the Applicant did not even mention Hudak Farm in its analysis… .the Applicant (is required) to address the impacts of its project on farms, and the Applicant did not perform this analysis.” Developer Davis told the Free Press that this legal delay will end up costing the city of St. Albans money — because under his agreement with the city, he will pay more than $1 million to the city over 3 years, but if legal appeals drag on beyond December 31, 2010, the agreement calls for his payment to the city to drop by $100,000. The city has received roughly one-third of the $1 million due from the developer. So the financial “sweeteners” added to this project are already flowing — even though the project’s opponents have not exhausted their legal remedies. Davis said he was ready to begin construction this spring, but now will be delayed because of the Motion To Alter. Davis, who took over this project 10 years into the process, has now been trying to discredit opponents for six years. He is also the developer of the largest Wal-Mart in Vermont, located roughly 25 minutes south of St. Albans in Williston, Vermont.
The Environmental Court dismissed the notion that Davis wants to build a supercenter, not a discount store, thus ignoring the dramatic impact that this superstore will have on nearby grocery stores like Hannaford’s and Price Chopper. The owner of the nearby Highgate Commons mall, which includes the Hannaford’s, said sales at a shopping center he owns in North Carolina dropped 16% following the opening of a Wal-Mart nearby. As a precaution, the Environmental Court required Wal-Mart to amend its permit if it wants to use more than 10,000 s.f. for food, “so that operation of the proposed Wal-Mart does not morph into a store… that provides direct competition with area grocery stores or supermarkets.” This is exactly what will happen, since Wal-Mart has no interest in building discount stores. Davis made the unusual pledge to pay more taxes if the cost of his development to the town exceeded his property tax payments. The citizens group, Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth, says on its website, “Here in Franklin County, we are struggling against efforts to convert some of the largest concentrations of prime-agricultural soils in the state to large-scale retail and residential development. Successful organic farms on the perimeters of these soils will be threatened. We cannot allow this to happen, as high quality Vermont farm products and the countryside in which they are grown represent the two most promising industries for Franklin County, as we embark on the twenty-first century. Vermonters need to be especially careful not to overload their winding roads and covered bridges, not to ruin their green rolling landscapes and not to empty out their small historic downtowns. More than a quarter of the state’s income comes from tourism, and nobody’s going to mail home a postcard of Wal-Mart.” There are currently only 4 Wal-Mart stores in Vermont — the smallest number in any state. The Green Mountain state has not proven to be very hospitable soil for Wal-Marts. Because of citizen opposition, the developer of this project has been forced to pay an abutting city for potential damages to its downtown, and to become a partner in the development of downtown properties. This is an unusual agreement — one that would never have happened without pressure from citizen activists. The developer now is trying to use the lure of his payments to the city as a way to pressure opponents to drop their appeal. This is about as likely to happen as Wal-Mart sourcing its products from American suppliers. Readers are urged to email the NWCRG at: [email protected] to find out how you can donate funds to their legal defense of the town and city of St. Albans. This 17 year marathon battle is still in full stride.