On May 12, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that a developer in Bennington, Vermont had disappeared for months, leaving his plans for an expanded Wal-Mart discount store in limbo. Three years prior, in the spring of 2005, residents in Bennington had voted in a special election to remove a 75,000 s.f. cap on the size of retail buildings. Wal-Mart has operated a 52,000 s.f. store in the Monument Plaza in this community of less than 16,000 people since 1995, when the giant retailer moved into an existing mall. 60% of Bennington’s voters did not even go to the polls, so the real winner in Bennington was apathy. The size cap was enacted by Bennington officials in December of 2004, after a three year planning process. The owner of the Wal-Mart project, Redstone Investments, wanted to increase the store to 112,000 s.f. Ironically, when Wal-Mart first came to Bennington, they pledged to the community that they would not need to seek expansion of the store. It’s been three years and nine months since the Bennington size cap was removed, yet no Wal-Mart expansion has taken place. Last May, the District 8 Environmental Coordinator announced that Redstone’s “Act 250” application was “substantially incomplete.” Act 250 is Vermont’s regional land use planning law, and is considered one of the most thorough such statutes in the nation. It was first enacted in 1971. The state official said that developer Jonathan Levy of Florida, submitted inadequate information in nine areas of the application. “They’re all kind of the same thing — being outdated,” the state official told The Banner “Most of it was prepared in 2005 and today is 2008.” Levy was required to submit an updated water and sewer allocation from the town, proof that he has applied for a state wastewater and storm water permit, and a new traffic study. The developer filed his Act 250 permit in early May, but was clearly in no hurry to get the application in, since he received his town permits in January of 2006. Levy has missed several deadlines set by the state’s Environmental Court. He has run through several extensions that were granted by the court. When the town permits were granted in 2006, the Vermont Natural Resources Council appealed to the Environmental Court. The developer also appealed the permit, because he was not satisfied with conditions included in the appeal. Hearings on both appeals were put on hold by the Environmental Court, until the developer filed his Act 250 application, so that all appeals could be consolidated within that application. The state was supposed to begin the Act 250 hearings immediately, but the incomplete filing put that project on hold. This week, after eight months of inactivity, the developer filed an application for an Act 250 permit with the state’s Agency of Natural Resources. Levy plans to demolish the existing Wal-Mart in the shopping plaza he owns, which includes a Price Chopper supermarket. The plans filed this week may immediately collide with state officials, because the developer has still not updated his traffic impact study, but has presented 2005 traffic data again. But the Act 250 official told the Rutland Herald, “I suppose I could send out another letter, but applicants do their best to submit a complete application. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The (Act 250) commission will decide if they need more information. It’s our intention to get these hearings started.” According to the Rutland Herald, the new Act 250 application contains little new information about the project. The Act 250 District Commissioners are all appointed by the Governor. The Governor of Vermont, Jim Douglas, is unabashedly in favor of Wal-Marts, and recently suggested that Act 250 needs to be amended because it is slowing down development.
The Selectmen in Bennington adopted the 75,000 s.f. cap on retail stores, but the cap was challenged at a special election in April 2005, at which time the cap was defeated by 2,189 to 1,724. Wal-Mart financed the effort to repeal the size cap. Months later, the Bennington Development Review Board approved the developer’s request to tear down the existing store and build a store more than twice the original size. The lawsuits followed — both by the developer and citizens, and both sides entered mediation in the spring of 2006. The developer resolved his issues with the town, but the citizens and the developer could not agree to terms. The citizen’s appeal of the permits is on stay, because the Act 250 decision is also likely to be appealed, and the state’s Environmental Court may want to consolidate both appeals. In 1995, Wal-Mart gave Bennington no clue that it would seek to enlarge its store. “The existing facility is of sufficient size to adequately serve the customer base in Bennington,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Rutland Herald at the time. “If it was not, we wouldn’t have chosen it.” If a 52,000 s.f. store was sufficient for the customer base in 1995, the only thing that has happened to that base over the past 10 years was a decline in the trade area population from 16,451 people in 1990, to 15,737 people in 2000. By 2006, the population in the town of Bennington had continued to drop to 15,349, and in 2007 it fell further to 15,155. Also during this period, one of Wal-Mart’ main local competitors, Ames, closed down, leaving the Wal-Mart more dominant in the marketplace than it was when it opened its “sufficient” store. The media at the time lauded Wal-Mart for using a “scaled down” approach in Vermont, and said “the corporation has heard Vermonter’s concerns about preserving the rural character of their state.” One paper said in 1995, “In avoiding a battle in Bennington, Wal-Mart has shown it knows how to do business in Vermont.” But Wal-Mart misled the citizens of Bennington, and came back less than a decade after opening in Bennington, asking to more than double the size of its store, in the face of declining population. Readers are urged to email District 8 Environmental Commission staff coordinator Warren Foster at [email protected] with this message: “I am writing to let you know that I am against the expansion of Wal-Mart in Bennington. Please take note of the population decline that has taken place in Bennington for almost the past twenty years, and recall that Wal-Mart told local residents in 1995 that its 52,000 s.f. store was of ‘sufficient size to adequately serve the customer base in Bennington.’ You should insist that the developer or Wal-Mart underwrite the cost of a new traffic study,not the 2005 version — but have that study done by an independent contractor chosen by District 8 or the town — not Wal-Mart. That’s the only way you will determine whether or not this project will create dangerous or congested traffic conditions. The same with any water or sewer engineering studies. The fact is, this project will have a negative impact on jobs at existing merchants in Bennington, and brings no added value economically to the community. I hope District 8 will reject this ill-advised expansion. You have been generous to allow the developer several extensions to file his plans, now its time to independently study the plan, and send the developer back to Florida.”