Wal-Mart tries again

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(Host) Wal-Mart has once again announced plans to build a store in Saint Albans. Commentator John McClaughry reflects on the conditions they face this time around.

(McClaughry) Nine years ago the state Environmental Board rejected the Act 250 permit for a Wal-Mart in St Albans Town. Now Wal-Mart says it will try again, on the same site, to build what will be its largest Vermont store.

When Wal-Mart first applied in 1993, the local development group satisfied the District 6 environmental commission that the project was in complete compliance with Act 250. The Town of St. Albans actively supported the application. The developer had even agreed to pay for extending town water and sewer lines to serve the site.

At the time, environmental groups were beating the drum to keep Vermont the only state not to have a Wal-Mart. A Washington-based preservation trust obligingly declared the entire state of Vermont to be one of America’s Most Endangered Historical Places , along with a 1,348 foot prehistoric serpent shaped earthwork in Ohio.

On appeal, the E-Board threw the book at Wal-Mart. It explained to the Town that its adopted planning and zoning was defective. It demanded that Wal-Mart comply with findings that the 1973 legislature had explicitly said were not to be used as permit criteria. The Board required Wal-Mart to explain in detail what dozens of unidentified private parties might do once they found a Wal-Mart in their area, and speculated that the Wal-Mart-caused increase in the local school population – an estimated six students – would require costly new educational facilities.

Wal-Mart appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court. Without addressing all of the bizarre holdings of the Board, that Court found that the Board was justified in overturning the permit, on the grounds that a shift in retail trading patterns away from adjacent St. Albans City would diminish that city’s property values, and therefore make it less able to provide essential tax-supported services. This ruling completely stood on its head the original understanding of Act 250, which was to slow down growth that threatened the tax base of the town where the growth occurred – not the next town over.
What makes Wal-Mart believe it can get an Act 250 permit for the same large store, on the same site, under essentially the same law, that both the Environmental Board and Supreme Court denied them just a decade ago? True, the hype over the whole state of Vermont as an Endangered Place has subsided. Four Wal-Mart stores are thriving in Vermont. The current Environmental Board is more business friendly and will likely take a different view than the Board of 1994. Still, for WalMart in 2004, it’s a crapshoot.

The obvious remedy for this kind of problem is to reorganize planning, municipal services, and property taxing into larger governmental units. But that raises the whole question of democratic accountability in governance. That’s a discussion that somebody needs to initiate.

This is John McClaughry – thanks for listening.

John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He spoke from our studio in St. Johnsbury.

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