St. Albans, VT. After 18 year battle, Vermont Supreme Court OKs Wal-Mart Superstore
One of the longest running battles against a Wal-Mart superstore in one location reached another milestone this week. The Vermont Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a developer who has been trying for 5 years to build a superstore in a cornfield in the town of St. Albans, just outside the limits of the city of St. Albans, Vermont. The case had been brought by a local citizens group, The Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth, on appeal from a lower Environmental Court ruling in favor of the developer.But the case actually goes back 18 years.
In its decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that its ruling was "the latest skirmish in a long-running dispute" over plans to develop a Wal-Mart superstore on an undeveloped 100-acre parcel.
This land use dispute traces back to September of 1993, when a different developer submitted plans for an Act 250 permit to build a 126,090 s.f. Wal-Mart store on the site. Although the regional Environmental Commission granted the permit, the citizens appealed to the Environmental Board ruled in favor of the residents. The developer at that time appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, which also ruled in favor of the citizens in
1997. The Supreme Court found that a Wal-Mart would "accelerate and attract substantial secondary growth"
Eight years later, a second developer, JLD Properties (which also built a controversial Wal-Mart in Williston, Vermont about 25 minutes south of St. Albans) filed a new Act 250 permit application to build a 147,000 s.f. on the same site. In 2008, the project won approval from the town of St. Alban's development review board, and later from the District Commission. Citizens then appealed these permits to the state's Environmental Court, which ruled in March 2009, found that the citizens had "good reasons to be concerned " the chair of the town-level review board "did not review the Wal-Mart application objectively." But the court rejected the charge that five other local review board members were biased "simply because they [had] voted in favor of an earlier application," and said the solution was to have a new hearing before the court.
In January of 2010, the Environmental Court approved the Wal-Mart with conditions. The citizens asked the court to alter its decision, and a revised ruling was issue in May of 2010, which residents then appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that the chairman of the local review board engaged in 'disreputable conduct," and was biased against the citizens, and that "his participation violated due process." But the court ruled that the new hearing before the Supreme Court was an adequate cure for the local violations of due process.
The Supreme Court also ruled that the lower court had relied on engineering and economic analyses showing that much of the potential secondary commercial growth that concerned the Board in 1993 had already occurred during the intervening years. The lower court "also found that the Board's original concern with the project's potential effect on other large discount stores in the area, specifically an Ames, Woolworths, and Ben Franklin store, was obviated by the fact that all three had since closed, so that -- in fact -- there was now evidence of need for a local discount store such as Wal-Mart." The Supreme Court said based on the evidence it received, the lower trial court did not make an error in its decision, and therefore the earlier decision would not be "disturbed."
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision was issued, local residents sent the following statement to Sprawl-Busters:
"The Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth are extremely disappointed by the decision of Vermont's Supreme Court with regard to the J.L.D. Properties Wal-Mart permit application, which seems to indicate a disregard for citizen access within the local permit process, not to mention for the validity of that process itself.
The judges acknowledged the egregious nature of conflicts of interest that occurred in the local permit process, which is the only level at which ordinary citizens may participate without devoting considerable financial resources to the effort. By ruling that those conflicts of interest do not matter because of the "de novo" nature of the Environmental Court hearing, they are saying essentially that the local permit is meaningless.
We sincerely hope for the best possible outcome for our communities, and we trust that the careful scrutiny we will apply to Mr. Davis' St. Albans Wal-Mart, both during the construction phase and throughout its operation, will serve to ensure that this will be the most scrupulously operated Wal-Mart store in history, and that none of the issues of traffic congestion, secondary growth, store closings and environmental degradation that we fear will be allowed to ensue."
What you can do: The citizens of the St. Albans region have kept Wal-Mart at bay for 18 years, and through two complete Act 250 environmental review processes.
In this last case, they were clearly facing a hostile, biased local town board. The conduct of local board members was, in the Supreme Court's language, "disreputable." It is pathetic that local taxpayers pursuing the First Amendment rights to petition government, had to put up with such prejudicial behavior on the part of a quasi-judicial board. The citizens never had a fair opportunity to present their case to a fair and balanced tribunal.
Not only were the all-volunteer Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth responsible for carrying out these legal appeals, but they also had to raise funding to support their appeals to court. By their actions, they have spared their local community the wasteful sprawl, traffic and financial cannibalism that a Wal-Mart superstore creates. In the process, they also cost Wal-Mart hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales.
The town of St. Albans has allowed their land to be sprawled upon by companies like Price Chopper, Hannaford's and others. But the addition of another huge store -- which the developer carefully avoided calling a 'superstore' -- will make a major change in the character of this area, and will have a lasting negative impact on the downtown of the neighboring city of St. Albans, which has struggled for years to survive the flight of shoppers to the big retailers on the edge of town.
This wealthy developer is now responsible for two blights upon the lanscape: St. Albans and Williston, Vermont. The green in the Green Mountain state is turning into the color of dollars. Residents in both communities held off the sprawl for years. The next generation of Vermonters will pay the price for this degradation of their landscape.