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VNRC Questions Process in State’s First Growth Center Designation

December 14th, 2007

The Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) has appealed a recent state agency decision creating the state’s first “growth center.”

VNRC contends the process to determine the Williston growth center boundaries was flawed because it violated the intent of the law. VNRC filed its notice of appeal with the Vermont Supreme Court on December 14.

“Because of a last-minute request by a developer to state officials, the way this growth center was created was fatally flawed,” said Steve Holmes, VNRC’s Sustainable Communities Director. “VNRC can’t sit by and watch a faulty process undermine the credibility of the growth center law. The law is too important to Vermont, and this first application needs to be done right,” he said. “It will set a precedent for other communities.”

“The growth center law was never intended to give out tax and other financial incentives to promote Wal-Mart or other big box development that is single-use, scattered and auto-dependent,” Holmes said. “This new version of the growth center does just that.”

Under the 2006 growth center law, municipalities can request the state to designate certain areas of the municipality for development. The idea is to channel growth – through various incentives — into compact centers, thereby discouraging scattered development across Vermont’s valuable farm and forestland.

VNRC is a strong supporter of the growth centers law and was instrumental in ushering it through the legislature. VNRC’s appeal in the Williston case in no way attacks the merits of the law or the Town of Williston’s efforts, but instead challenges the process by which this growth center was created.

The town of Williston, led by its town planner, spent months preparing an application for the growth center in and around Tafts Corners. The town held a public hearing and then a state board — the Growth Center Planning Coordination Group — held three meetings on the issue. That panel then sent a proposed growth center plan to a higher board, known as the Expanded Downtown Board, for final approval.

The town, the state’s Growth Center Planning Coordination Group, and non-profit groups including VNRC, Smart Growth Vermont and the Preservation Trust of Vermont worked hard to hammer out an agreement that worked for the town and the state.

But then suddenly, the Expanded Downtown Board reversed course and included in the growth center properties that do not comply with growth center criteria. The new boundaries include the existing Wal-Mart and Home Depot as well as other undeveloped property in Tafts Corners.