St. Albans, VT. After 19 Year Battle, Wal-Mart Breaks Ground
One of the longest running citizen battles against Wal-Mart reached another milestone this month. A developer has broken ground in the town of St.Albans, Vermont. This case passed twice through the state's Environmental Act 250 process, being rejected in 1995, and then accepted last year -- proving beyond doubt that the much-touted law is only as good as the people who interpret it. The controversial case went twice to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Last week, Sue Prent, a spokesperson for the group Northwest Citizen's For Responsible Growth, published the following letter in The St. Alban's Messenger newspaper:
"Now that JLD Properties' has held its Walmart ground-breaking, we would like to use this opportunity to say that we are confident that Walmart will want to take every measure necessary to ensure that the St. Albans store will be the most ethically operated Walmart in history; that its workers will have nothing but positive employment experiences, and will be free to organize; that the store will not engage in predatory marketing schemes; that the historic St. Albans downtown will remain a vital community marketplace; that the emerging importance of our working landscape will not be damaged; and that none of the negative impacts that have occurred in other communities when Walmart came to town will happen here.
We are certain of this because Walmart will know that we are watching; and we will continue watching and sharing our experiences, nationwide, through an extensive grassroots network of concerned citizen groups, with other communities who are being targeted by the retail giant. St. Albans has become a national stage on which Walmart should want to perform conspicuously above reproach. We have the opportunity to share these experiences more broadly than has ever been done before.
Furthermore, the developer, JL Davis will know that we are watching to see that every assertion he made in the permit process holds up. These include promises regarding quality job creation, traffic, viability of local retail and other important measures of community well-being; as well as the absence of "secondary growth" pressures beyond what existed at the time that Walmart received its permit. In our opinion, Mr. Davis' assertions in the permit process become Walmart's obligations to Franklin County as a whole, once the giant retailer occupies his store.
We recognize that enforcement mechanisms within the permit system are woefully inadequate; so we will not rely on official action to address broken promises. Should we be disappointed in our expectations, and should any of the assertions made by Mr. Davis and Walmart over the course of the permit process prove in reality to have been untrue, we are prepared to hold Walmart accountable through organized market action."
What you can do: JLD Properties (which also built a controversial Wal-Mart in Williston, Vermont about 25 minutes south of St. Albans) filed an 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."
Readers are urged to contribute to the legal bills of the Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth. You can access their website at http://www.nwcrg.org