Bennington to vote on Zoning Bylaw Overturn

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(Host) In Bennington, the battle over controlling super-big-box development is coming down to the wire. Voters will decide on Tuesday whether to overturn a zoning bylaw limiting the size of new retail buildings in town.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The Bennington select board unanimously adopted the bylaw this winter. The vote followed a series of public hearings focused on the wave of ever-larger ‘super-big box stores’ being built around the country. The bylaw sets a 75,000 square foot size limit on new stores in the town’s Northside Drive commercial area. It also requires developers of large retail buildings to pay for an impact study.

Days before the law passed, the owner of the town’s existing Wal-Mart Plaza submitted plans for a new 112,000 square foot Wal-Mart. That’s more than twice as big as the one there now.

(Levy) “We were approached by a number of people from the town who were opposed to the idea of a cap being put on this type of development. And there were a number of people that called us and said they’d like to help us try and put a petition out to put the idea of a cap to the people for a vote. And we were able to gather the signatures that we needed and now it’s going to a vote on April 5th.”

(Keese) Jonathan Levy’s Ohio-based company owns the Wal-Mart Plaza. The company has financed ads and mailings encouraging voters to overturn the cap. Levy also paid local opponents to gather signatures calling for the referendum.

Mike Bethel, the Bennington resident who spearheaded the petition, wouldn’t speak on tape. He says he wants the people to decide, especially working-class people who rely on the big stores’ lower prices.

Levy says his project is an opportunity the town shouldn’t turn its back on.

(Levy) “There’s a tremendous increase in real estate taxes, there’s an opportunity for more than 140 new jobs in the community and there are a awful lot of good things that will happen as a result of our development that couldn’t happen if the cap was in place.”

(Keese) Alicia Romac disagrees. She’s the leader of Citizens for a Better Bennington, a group that wants to keep the law.

(Romac) “We don’t need jobs that offer low pay, that offer partial benefits, if at all. We need better jobs. We don’t need just more jobs, we need better-paying jobs here in Bennington.”

(Keese) Wal-Mart has also gotten involved with a phone survey which some officials say was misleading.

Sharyn Brush, a Bennington select board member, says Bennington isn’t anti-growth or anti-big box.

(Brush) “We just want to have some control over what goes on and not let it really get out of hand like it has in some places.”

(Keese) In Montpelier, legislators are watching Bennington closely. One bill on retail size has already been introduced.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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