St. Albans Citizens Fight Back

St. Albans Citizens Fight Back

Updated February 2008

It was a cold winter day in February 2004 when VNRC’s Steve Holmes got the call from Bonnie Wooden of St. Albans. Bonnie, who sadly passed away on September 7th , was the first person to call VNRC expressing serious concerns about the prospect of a Wal-Mart in St. Albans. Steve met her in 1993 when Wal-Mart first attempted to build a “big box” store in a cornfield two miles outside of the city. Her energy and enthusiasm had not let up a bit. In fact, she seemed even more determined to get a handle on growth in St. Albans.

During the winter, most of the news from St. Albans seemed to favor Wal-Mart’s new attempt to develop an even bigger proposal than the one that had been rejected in the mid- 90s by the Environmental Board and the Vermont Supreme Court. The store would be located a stone’s throw from the intersection of Route 7 and the I-89 Exit 20 access road.

Governor Douglas welcomed Wal-Mart back with open arms. The St. Albans Town Selectboard had nothing but good things to say about the proposal. Many of the letters to the editor in the St. Albans Messenger extolled the dubious virtues of the world’s largest company coming to town.

But there were a few who questioned the wisdom of opening a mega-store in this rural part of town. Bonnie was one of them. Just as she had so graciously done in the first Wal-Mart assault, Bonnie offered to host a gathering at her High Street home to see if there were others in the area who felt the same as she did. Steve Holmes and Matteo Burani of VNRC helped organize this first meeting on April 14 attended by about 20 people, some of whom were involved in the first Wal-Mart battle, including locals Betty Finn, Sue Knightes, and Tom Bushey. This was the first of three meetings last spring hosted by Bonnie Wooden. At the second meeting, Betty Finn was elected to chair the fledgling group, and an eight-person Steering Committee was formed.

At the first Steering Committee meeting, a name was recommended and approved at the following full group meeting. Today, the Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth (NCRG) boasts over 80 members and continues to grow.

VNRC has provided staff support to NCRG at both monthly NCRG membership meetings and Steering Committee meetings.

The NCRG was very busy during the summer of 2004. In June, with VNRC’s assistance, several of the group’s members spoke at the first hearing of the Town Development Review Board (DRB) on the Wal-Mart application. One of its members, Marie Frey, petitioned for “interested person” status. Shortly after the hearing, NCRG and VNRC circulated a petition to allow other members to participate in the hearings as “interested persons,” which would entitle them to appeal the decision if the application is approved. To date, 56 people have signed the petition, and NCRG and VNRC are awaiting a ruling from the DRB on this petition. Since his arrival at VNRC in August, Jon Groveman has helped NCRG with legal issues, and represented Marie Frey and the other petitioners at the second DRB hearing on September 23rd. Six members of the NCRG spoke at that hearing.

On July 13th, the NCRG and VNRC co-sponsored the “Big Box BBQ” at Marie and Richard Hudak’s Farm just down the road from the proposed Wal-Mart site. The event, attended by about 150 people, featured speakers Al Norman, dubbed by CBS’ 60 Minutes “the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement,” Stacy Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and Kennedy Smith, a downtown and economic consultant who was an expert in the first St. Albans Wal-Mart Act 250 case.

The group has been very active in the media as well, garnering local, national, and international coverage, Fortune Magazine wrote a major story about the Big Box BBQ, and BBC did a feature as well. The BBQ was also the feature of a Seven Days cover story. Its members have appeared on local radio talk shows and community access cable TV, where they are developing a regular show to be aired.

NCRG has recently received some financial support from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund. After just six months, the organization is a strong and vibrant group of citizens and businesses who are making their mark on this corner of Vermont. They are eager to share what they have done with others, and would be a good resource for other communities facing this kind of development. For more information please contact Steve Holmes at VNRC, 802-223-2328 ext. 120 or or Perry Cooper at NCRG at 802-933-2036.