St. Albans, VT. Farmers, Neighbors Continue Their Battle With Wal-Mart
The longest running battle against a Wal-Mart on one site has just gotten longer. On June 1, 2010, opponents of a Wal-Mart proposed for the town of St. Albans, Vermont filed legal paperwork challenging an Environmental Court decision that approved the construction of a new Wal-Mart store in the town of St Albans. The fight over this one piece of land goes back to roughly 1993.
On February 26, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), which is representing plaintiffs opposing the construction of a Wal-Mart in St. Albans, Vermont, filed a "Motion to Alter" a decision issued by the state's Environmental Court (EC) roughly a month earlier.
The Environmental Court had issued a 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 where the building site is located -- to compensate for economic harm that will befall the city's core downtown area.
The proposed Wal-Mart would be the largest in Vermont at 146,755 s.f., or about the size of three football fields. It is proposed for Route 7 near exit 20 off I-89. 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 must not 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.
The developer 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 has 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."
In late February, 2010, the VNRC told the media that the court had 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 the town of St. Albans.
Developer Davis told the Burlington 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 VNRC, which has shouldered the legal weight of this case, was joined in its appeal by the Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth (NWCRG) and farmers Marie Frey and Richard Hudak. The appeal charges that the Town of St. Albans Subdivision Bylaws requires that an applicant prove that a project is compatible with adjacent uses - especially agriculture. The developer failed to analyze the compatibility of the proposed Wal-Mart with the adjacent Hudak Farm. "The Court has overlooked the obligation of the applicant to demonstrate that it will not jeopardize the existence of well-established local farm operations," according to VNRC's Deputy Director Steve Holmes.
The appeal also contends that conflicts of interest in the permit process have contaminated the proceedings to such an extent that a fair review on the merits of the project is impossible. There are also several other areas in the decision, such as impact on agricultural soils, secondary growth, character of the area, and public investment, in which the Court's conclusions were not supported by the findings. VNRC also says that "legal doctrine precludes the building of the Wal-Mart in the same location at the size proposed." A smaller Wal-Mart store of 100,000 sq ft was proposed for the same site in the 1990s and was denied in part because of impacts on surrounding communities. So a larger store in the same site should also be rejected.
"If Wal-Mart had decided to build a 75,000 s.f. store in the city, folks could have been shopping there for several years," said Holmes. "It makes economic sense, both from the consumer's and the retailer's perspective, to centrally locate future stores where more people can get to them without having to get in their cars."
The Mayor of the adjoining city of St. Albans, Marty Manahan, told the St. Albans Messenger newspaper that he was "disappointed, but not surprised." The Mayor was the key negotiator who worked out the revenue deal with developer Davis, in which the city gets a compensatory payment from the developer -- but the payment drops if the project is delayed. In effect, Jeff Davis bought the Mayor's support by promising the city cash. The payments are contingent on 'substantial construction' taking place. The Mayor has been placed in the position of being a cheerleader for a project that will financially ruin some of the businesses now located in downtown St. Albans city.
"The longer this goes, the less money the city gets for its downtown," Mayor Manahan told the newspaper. "It really begs the question: Is the VNRC really concerned about our downtown? I find it all so ironic. They're not concerned with our downtown, or worried about protecting it. They're more concerned by the fact that it's Wal-Mart coming in." The Mayor predicted VNRC will lose at the Vermont Supreme Court, and added, "They haven't received the answer they want. They are trying to represent our downtown, but they're not trying to represent our downtown." Critics say the Mayor rushed through the cash-for-construction deal without public input.
What you can do: The local retail trade area stands to lose a lot more than developer Davis will kick into the city's coffers.
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. Wal-Mart has been trying for years to expand its store in Bennington, Vermont in the southern end of the 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 city Mayor Marty Manahan at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message: "Dear Mayor Manahan, I'm sure you believe that you have cut the best deal you could with developer Jeff Davis, but the 'contributions' you will get for the city will be weighed against the loss of jobs and business that will occur over the next decade if Wal-Mart and secondary growth occurs on the edge of your city. You may not be concerned by what happens to Price Chopper of Hanaford's, or Highgate Commons in general -- but the town and the city are really one trade area, and bringing in more national chain stores will only raise your traffic and crime. You will see little jobs or revenue from this plan. The residents of the city and town who have fought this store since the early 90s are using their First Amendment right to speak out against a project that will dominate your economic landscape for a period of time, and then be gone. These constituents deserve the same respect that the Mayor's office apparently has for cash payments."