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Judge Finds Wal-Mart Hearings Biased

September 2006

A recent Environmental Court ruling affirmed citizens’ claims that the Town of St. Albans’ hearings on a proposed 160,000-square-foot Wal-Mart were biased and contaminated by conflict of interest. Members of Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth filed a motion objecting to the fact that one member of the St. Albans Town Development Review Board (DRB) wore a hat to a hearing that included the inscription “St. Albans Needs Wal-Mart. NWCRG members also raised objections to the fact that another DRB member signed a pro-Wal-Mart petition.

In the ruling, Environmental Court Judge Merideth Wright described the DRB member’s decision to wear a pro-Wal-Mart hat as “an act of disrespect for the integrity of the DRB proceedings.” Judge Wright went on to say that the act of disrespect “gave both the stakeholders and observers good reasons to doubt that the proceedings were being conducted by the required impartial and wholly disinterested tribunal. That reasonable doubt in the fairness of the hearing contaminated both that day of hearing and the further (DRB) proceedings … .”

Read the judge’s decision here.

While the court found that the DRB process was contaminated and unconstitutional, it failed to afford the citizens the remedy they sought by overturning the local permit. Instead, the judge decided to move forward with the appeal, recognizing that DRB process was contaminated, and strongly urging the town to take steps to prevent such violations of due process from occurring in the future. VNRC, on behalf of the NWCRG, has filed a motion to alter the judge’s decision not to void the permit. The motion is pending with the court.

“Judge Wright clearly understands that the democratic process was severely undermined here,” noted NWCRG member Marie Frey. “As someone who owns land down the road from the proposed project, I was outraged and saddened that the local review process did not provide me with a fair opportunity to address the impact of Wal-Mart on my property and the city. It is heartening that the judge has condemned the DRB’s actions and recognized that the process was unfair. However, given my experience with the DRB, I have little faith that the town will act to prevent future conflicts of interest as the judge urged in her decision.”

“Our goal was never to force the Town of St. Albans to spend a lot of time and money and go back to the drawing board on this proposal,” said town resident and NWCRG member Debbie Hauck. “All we ever wanted was a forum in which the DRB would hear the concerns of all members of the community through a fair, impartial, and democratic process. By Judge Wright’s own analysis, that didn’t happen. Our ultimate goal is to make sure this never happens again.”

“Land use decisions of this magnitude and potential community impact must be made in the most open, fair and public way possible. In this case, the due process of concerned members of the St. Albans community have been violated,” stated Vermont Natural Resources Council Executive Director Elizabeth Courtney. “As a former Chair of the Environmental Board I believe very strongly that land use decisions must be made by unbiased, impartial and informed decision makers. The judge’s decision sadly highlights that this did not occur in St. Albans Town during the review of a project that has the potential to significantly affect the quality of life and environment of all of Franklin County. This is simply unacceptable. Steps must be taken to assure that other citizens do not face such unfair treatment in the future.”