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Good Planning Wins Over Strip Development in Royalton

By Beth Humstone, VNRC Board of Directors
Good town and regional planning prevented more strip development and sprawl on Route 107 at Exit 3 on I-89 when the District #3 Environmental Commission denied Act 250 permits for both a Dollar General store and a Family Dollar store in the town of Royalton in April and May 2012.

A 9,100 square foot Dollar General store was proposed on an undeveloped piece of land on the west side of Exit 3 while a 9,600 square foot Family Dollar store was planned for an existing unused building on the east side of Exit 3.  Both the Town of Royalton Planning Commission and the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission presented evidence to the district environmental commission stating that the projects failed to conform to their plans.

A pivotal factor in both decisions was that retail development was not planned for these locations in either the local or the regional plan.  Both planning commissions had designated retail development for nearby villages and both had explicit policies to protect the viability of the villages and to prevent strip development at the interchange.  The language in both plans was mandatory which was critical to the district environmental commissions’ findings and conclusions.

Planning for the interchange at Exit 3 began in 1998 during a period in which the state of Vermont under Governor Howard Dean became concerned with development patterns around interstate interchanges.  The Town of Royalton received a grant to study Exit 3 and develop a coordinated town policy for growth in the area.  The Exit 3 Planning and Development Study was adopted as part of the Royalton Town Plan and the regional plan.

Complementing the Exit 3 study was the very detailed regional land use plan developed by the Two Rivers – Ottauquechee Regional Commission, under the leadership of Peter Gregory.  The regional plan was clear – retail stores were to be located in “Town Centers, Designated Downtowns or Designated Growth Centers” and were not appropriate at interstate interchanges.

In the case of Dollar General the commission found, “The developer has not followed the required mandatory provisions outlined in the Exit 3 Study when developing a plan for a Dollar General Store in Royalton. The Applicants have failed their burden of proof to provide adequate evidence that a Dollar General Store will not impact the economic vitality of downtown South Royalton and Bethel. The project is not a service establishment or an office which are the designated uses for this special area. The study clearly directs developers to site primary retail stores within existing village areas…” (p. 24)

With respect to conformance with the regional plan, the commission stated, “The intent of the plan is to locate such retail stores in ‘Town Centers, Designated Downtowns or Designated Growth Centers to minimize the blighting effect of sprawl and strip development along major highways and maintain rural character.’ (Two Rivers –Ottauquechee Regional Plan , page 33). If this use were to be allowed, the Regional Planning Commission’s efforts to plan would be rendered useless and a giant step would be taken towards their chief worry of sprawl and strip development and other such projects would follow.” (p. 26.)

Similar findings and conclusions were reached for the Family Dollar store.

These two cases illustrate how careful town and regional planning, including analysis of development patterns and development of goals and detailed policies, can stop strip development and focus retail activity in village and town centers.  To effectively utilize Act 250 to stop such projects, the language in the plans must be clear, unambiguous and mandatory.  Both the town of Royalton and the Two Rivers- Ottauquechee understood this and were successful in crafting their plans to achieve their goals.

Beth Humstone is an urban planning consultant. Formerly, she was the Executive Director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl (later Smart Growth Vermont), Director of U.S. Programs for the Institute for Sustainable Communities, Chair of the Board of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund and President of the national Growth Management Leadership Alliance. She is a member of VNRC’s Board of Directors.