One of the longest battles in Wal-Mart history has taken another twist in the road. On October 10, 2006, Sprawl-Busters described the 14 year battle by Wal-Mart to build a store in town of St. Albans, Vermont, just north of the city of St. Albans, in a cornfield across from a drive-in theater. Wal-Mart’s first attempt to build a superstore was approved at the local level, appealed by citizens, and finally resolved by the Vermont Supreme Court, which rejected the store in 1995. The project lay dormant for many years, until another developer, Jeff Davis, who built Vermont’s first major Wal-Mart in Tafts Corner in Williston, Vermont, picked up the project and began pursuing it again in 2004. Davis’ first Wal-Mart is approximately half an hour south of the current St. Albans project. Ever since being filed, the 146,000 s.f. Wal-Mart plan for the town has generated nothing but controversy. In 2006, the project ran into a snag when the town itself had to ask the state’s Environmental Court to toss out permits granted in June 2005 to the developer. The town asked to restart the project because a Vermont judge ruled that two members of the nine-member town Development Review Board showed apparent bias in favor of Wal-Mart during hearings in 2004. The judge herself did not overturn the permits, but the town feared that if the case proceeded, Wal-Mart opponents would challenge the case in court, delaying the project’s timetable significantly. “We strongly believe that the Development Review Board correctly followed and applied the town’s zoning bylaws,” the town Selectboard said at the time. “The town would like to remove any suggestion of impropriety in the process.” The Vermont Natural Resources Council, which represents the opponents, told the Burlington Free Press they were not “thrilled about having to go back to the beginning, but once the judge recognized the hearings were tainted, there’s simply no choice.” The judge ruled that Ernest Levesque Jr., a member of the development board, came to one of the Wal-Mart hearings wearing a hat with the words “St. Albans Town needs Wal-Mart.” When the chairman asked him to remove the hat, he put it on the table in front of him with the words facing the audience. Another member, Albert Benson, signed a pro-Wal-Mart petition during the hearings. He withdrew his signature a day later after conferring with a town Selectman. The judge ruled that Levesque “destroyed the appearance of fairness that due process requires and to which the stakeholders at the hearing were entitled, whether or not he also departed from the reality of giving the application a fair hearing.” Local opponents of the St. Alban’s project had assumed that the town board would approve what is known as the Act 250 permit, named after the state’s land use environmental law. That’s what happened in 1995, and that’s what was expected in 2008. This week, the District 6 Environmental Commission approved the Act 250 permit, which the Burlington Free Press called the “last hurdle” for the store. But it is expected that opponents will simply appeal the Act 250 permit to court, and the developer will have to wait at least another six months to a year for that appeal to play out. JLD Properties of St. Albans, the developer’s corporation, issued a press release which said, “This culminates a four-year permitting process and is the final permit necessary to begin construction on the Wal-Mart store. All other permits are in hand. We view this as a very positive step forward for the store. There’s a lot of support for a Wal-Mart in Franklin County. I think people are ready for it. If construction started right away, the store could be open within a year.” Although JLD said it would “move ahead and start constructing” if no one appeals the project — — the developer knows full well there is a lot of opposition in Franklin County to this project, and that the permit will be appealed. JLD told the newspaper they hoped that opponents of the project would “allow this project to proceed.”
The citizens group, Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth, told the Free Press that it is reviewing the decision of the District 6 Environmental Commission. The Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Vermont Preservation Trust, have all spoken out against this project. “Here in Franklin County,” the NWCRG says on its website, “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.” The group now must appeal to the state’s environmental court. There are currently only 4 Wal-Mart stores in Vermont. The Green Mountain state has not proven to be very hospitable soil for Wal-Marts. 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.