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VNRC Continues Battle Over St Albans Wal-Mart

VNRC and other parties have filed legal paperwork June 1 challenging an Environmental Court decision that approves the construction of a new Wal-Mart store in the town of St Albans.

Joining VNRC in filing the appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court was a local group known as Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth (NWCRG) and nearby farmers Marie Frey and Richard Hudak.  All were granted party status in the Act 250 process and participated in the Environmental Court hearings.

The parties believe that the Environmental Court made several factual errors in the decision that led to faulty conclusions about the impact of the proposed Wal-Mart on neighboring farms.

For example, the Court erred in initially finding that the Hudak Farm is located only in Swanton. In fact the Hudak Farm has 69 acres in the Town of St Albans. Although the Court later corrected the factual errors, the Court reached the flawed conclusion that the applicant Wal-Mart need not focus on the compatibility of the proposed Wal-Mart with the Hudak Farm. The Town of St Albans Subdivision Bylaws requires that an applicant prove that a project is compatible with adjacent uses – especially agriculture. The applicant did not analyze the compatibility of the proposed Wal-Mart with the adjacent Hudak Farm. The applicant has the burden of proof to satisfy the town bylaws.

“The Court has overlooked the obligation of the applicant to demonstrate that it will not jeopardize the existence of well-established local farm operations,” according to VNRC’s Deputy Director Steve Holmes.

The parties also contend that conflicts of interest in the permit process have contaminated the proceedings to such an extent that a fair review on the merits of the project is impossible.

There are also several areas in the decision in which the Court has not reached findings and conclusions or in which the conclusions are not supported by the findings.  The decision is in error with respect to impact on agricultural soils, secondary growth, character of the area, and public investment.

The parties believe that legal doctrine precludes the building of the Wal-Mart in the same location at the size proposed. A smaller Wal-Mart store of 100,000 sq ft was proposed for the same site in the 1990s and was denied in part because of impacts on surrounding communities.

The proposed store would be the largest in Vermont at 146,755 square feet, or about the size of three football fields. It is proposed for Route 7 near exit 20 off I-89.

VNRC and NWCRG have consistently advocated for a smaller store in downtown St. Albans.

“If Wal-Mart had decided to build a 75,000 square foot store in the city, folks could have been shopping there for several years,” said Holmes.  “It makes economic sense, both from the consumer’s and the retailer’s perspective, to centrally locate future stores where more people can get to them without having to get in their cars, ” he added.