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2005-04-06
Bennington, VT. Ohio Developer & Wal-Mart Buy Victory Over Size Limits.

Local residents opposed to a Wal-Mart expansion suffered a setback last night, as voters in Bennington, Vermont opted in a special election to remove a 75,000 s.f. cap on the size of retail buildings. Wal-Mart has had a 52,000 s.f. store in this community of less than 16,000 population since 1995, when the giant retailer moved into an existing mall. The vote was 2,189 to 1,724. However, six out of ten voters did not even go to the polls, so the real winner in Bennington was apathy. The developer proceeded to spend heavily in this small town, buying full page ads in the local newspaper, hiring a telemarking firm to call voters, and using direct mail. Meanwhile, local residents hoping to "keep the cap", had almost no budget to get out their message. The size cap was enacted by Bennington officials last December, after a three year planning process. The owner of the Wal-Mart project, Redstone Investments, wants to increase the store to 112,000 s.f. Ironically, when Wal-Mart first came to Bennington a decade ago, they pledged to the community that they would not need to seek expansion of the store. In May of 1995, Wal-Mart told the press there were no plans to expand the store, and that moving into a 52,000 s.f. building was not a "half measure" by the company. "The existing facility is of sufficient size to adeequately serve the customer base in Bennington," spokesman Don Shinkle 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. 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." The Citizens for a Greater Bennington supported the cap, and after the election last night, a spokesman said, "It's special interests interfering with what's best for the community process, and I don't think that's really the best way to run a government." Wal-Mart has been known to spend as much as $1 million in such ballot campaigns, creating a phony citizens group, hiring a PR firm, etc. The company runs a "corporate democracy" campaign based on the premise that the side which spends the most money, wins. In the case of Bennington, that principle held up. Most local media stories paid little attention to how much the Wal-Mart forces were spending. One story today indicated that the developer outspent pro-cap forces by three to one, but no dollar spending was revealed. The Bennington Banner indicated that the developer still has a long was to go before winning approval for his 112,000 s.f. store. Even with the existing bylaw voted down, retail stores in the commercial district are still limited to 75,000 square feet. An interim bylaw still on the books, which was passed a year ago, limits retail stores to 50,000 s.f. in all areas of the town except the commercial district where the limit is 75,000 s.f. The developer can apply for a variance to the select board, but it will also trigger review by the local Design Review Board. The project will have to meet the 5 criteria, including a provision that that the land could not be developed unless the variance was granted. Regulations also require the board to approve the smallest variance possible to allow the project to continue. An expanded project will surely cause serious traffic congestion at the existing location, and a store of this size will lead to an Act 250 review, Vermont's state land use law, and could ultimately end up at the Vermont Supreme Court. In all, a developer could be looking at one to two years before the process is over.

What you can do: The Bennington vote demonstrates the need for campaign finance reform. If a developer or Wal-Mart is able to spend corporate funds on a local campaign without limit, while local residents hold bake sales to make ends meet, then use of the ballot becomes a financial weapon in the hands of large corporations. Although residents have beaten Wal-Mart at the ballot box in places like Greenfield, MA, Eureka, CA, Inglewood, CA and other locations, the lack of finance limits places citizens groups at a distinct disadvantage in getting their local message out. So Bennington was vulnerable to the highest bidder. The local media, and citizens, did not make enough of this disparity, and the developer was able to play on a lopsided field without much consequence in this case. Local pro-cap forces were also afraid to bring in "outside" people to help rally their vote, while an "outside" developer quietly used local people as a front for his campaign war chest. Spending by the developer and Wal-Mart comes at a time when the Vermont state legislature is considering a statewide cap on the size of buildings at 50,000 s.f. This vote was more about loss of local control than it was about a store. Such votes encourage developers to just spend what it takes to rewrite local zoning codes, and until limits are placed on what corporations can spend on such elections, the future of many towns will depend on what developers are willing to spend, not what makes good land use policy.










 
 
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