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Bennington Receives Growth Center Designation Despite Concerns

On September 22, 2007, the expanded Downtown Development Board approved Bennington’s application for Growth Center Designation. Smart Growth Vermont commends Dan Monks, Bennington’s Town Planner, and the Planning Commission and Selectboard for their track record of responsible land use planning and growth management, as well as their efforts to maintain their downtown as the heart of their community.
However, the implementation of the growth center program continues to fall short of the intent of its enabling legislation. Together with Preservation Trust of Vermont and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Smart Growth Vermont once again raised two concerns about the process.
The first was the size of the proposed growth center. The program calls for establishing compact growth centers that can accommodate at least 50% of projected growth over a 20 year time period. Bennington’s growth center is far larger. By the town’s own calculations, the growth center will accommodate 458% of the projected manufacturing growth, 300% of projected office growth, and 236% of projected commercial growth. “Supersizing” a growth center makes it difficult to meet the goal of compact and orderly growth that is the cornerstone of the growth centers program.
The second concern is the potential impact of the growth center on Bennington’s downtown. Bennington has done an admirable job to date of supporting its historic downtown. However, a recent regional economic impact analysis associated with a proposed Wal-Mart expansion indicates that retail development outside of the downtown will adversely impact “as many as 10-15% of the existing businesses, mostly [those] selling clothing, beauty and hair products, sporting goods, electronics, floral products, home and hardware goods and eye wear.” The report goes on to state, “There are also many vacant storefronts in the downtown area that will be even harder to fill in the absence of retail property uses and related demand from retail uses.”
By approving Bennington’s growth center in spite of these flaws, the expanded Downtown Development Board has once again allowed the establishment of a growth center that will most likely result in “a scattered or low-density pattern of development at the conclusion of the 20 year planning period” — which is exactly what the program is intended to avoid. The risk is that development patterns within those growth centers will be characterized by scattered, automobile-dependent sprawl rather than smart growth, as is called for in the statute. We hope the Board will reconsider its stance when reviewing future applications.
To learn more about growth centers program, visit our State Policy page or the Vermont Department of Housing & Community Affairs’ Growth Centers web page.