It’s been a long, strange trip for Wal-Mart in the town of St. Albans, Vermont. Rejected by the courts in 1995, Wal-Mart returned to the same spot in this small community a decade later looking for a second chance — this time with a new developer who built a controversial Wal-Mart project in Williston, Vermont roughly 25 minutes to the south of St. Albans. Ever since being filed, the new 146,000 s.f. Wal-Mart plan for the town has generated nothing but controversy. This week, the project was in the headlines again, because the town has asked the state’s Environmental Court to toss out permits granted in June 2005 to the developer. The town asked to restart the project because last month 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 in a prepared statement. “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.” The judge added that Benson’s actions also “detracted from the appearance of a fair hearing.” The town now says it will appoint “a different, impartial and fair DRB” to start the case from scratch. One of the “new” members, however, will be Benson. “We’re heading in the wrong direction,” opponents said. “It certainly sounds like the Selectboard is prejudging.” The project is being considered under the state’s Act 250 land-use law.
Local opponents have won a victory in St. Albans, but the war goes on. It was only because citizens pointed out the arrogant prejudice of the reviewers, that the court’s ruled against the town. So the developer and the town are happy to start over, because of their own flawed process. But the Selectmen have said they still support the original decision, so opponents say nothing much has changed, except the developer — and opponents — have wasted time and money during the process. Opponents have to pay for their expert witnesses, and they really pay more of a price than the developer, who has deeper pockets than the opponents. But this St. Albans controversy uncovers the fact that residents were not going to get a fair hearing in this town. Ten years ago, the Vermont Supreme court ruled that essentially the same project would result in a loss of $2.50 in public cost for every $1 in public benefit. That should have been the end of Wal-Mart, but an aggressive developer, who sees “green” in the Green Mountain state, is forcing the community to do a d??j?? vu all over again. This case will end up in court either way, and the project is a long way from any conclusion — thanks to the forceful intervention of local residents. The Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth are urging Vermont residents to consider dropping a brief email letter to the editor of the St. Albans Messenger, at: [email protected] to express your opposition to the saturation of the Green Mountain state by giant retailers.