`Sprawl-Mart' Endangers Vermont

THE tension between environmentalism and capitalism has special meaning in Vermont. Here, the environment that rallies protectors isn't only the dense forests and wild streams of the Green Mountain and Taconic ranges. It's also the village centers and rustic farmsteads that seem like backdrops for Norman Rockwell paintings.

Last summer, the National Trust for Historic Preservation turned up the perennial debate over how to manage growth in Vermont by designating the whole state an ``endangered historic place.'' The danger, said the Trust, was ``sprawl-mart,'' a none-too-veiled reference to Wal-Mart, the mega-retailer currently battling to set up shop up here. From the state house and editorial pages came appreciation for this ``needed warning.''

From other quarters came the comment that the warning was misplaced - that what really ought to stir Vermonters is the loss of thousands of well-paid jobs in their state. Downsizing and plant closings by IBM, General Electric, Johnson Controls, and other manufacturers have hit Vermont disproportionately hard, given the state's small manufacturing base to begin with.

It's a different climate from the 1980s, when New England's economic boom washed into Vermont and a revenue-rich state government put even more resources into a regulatory system often called a model of environmental vigilance. Now demands to adjust the balance in favor of economic development are far more determined.

``It's a battle between people who view Vermont as a landscape overtaxed by the existing population base and who want no growth, or negative growth, and people who enjoy Vermont and want to make sure their children can have a life here too,'' says Jeffrey Wennberg, mayor of Rutland, with 18,500 people the state's second-largest city (Burlington has 40,100).

``People who want no growth can't do a frontal assault,'' continues the mayor, an outspoken backer of economic development. That would be politically impractical. ``So they process the projects to death.'' The process he refers to, by which state government determines if developers get a go-ahead, is clearly out of whack, according to Mr. Wennberg.

But there's another side. ``I reject out of hand the proposition that we have to strike a balance between the needs of the environment and those of the economy,'' counters Dick McCormack, a state senator from the central Vermont town of Bethel and a strong pro-environment voice. In Vermont, says Mr. McCormack, it's ``our image - this rural mountain paradise - that sells the products.'' Strong environmental protection is itself part of a sound infrastructure, he says.

State Senator McCormack and many others emphasize that ``Made in Vermont'' specialty products - ranging from Ben and Jerry's ice cream to Vermont Castings stoves - are the backbone of the local economy. If the Vermont label is devalued by development that mars the state's pristine image, income and jobs will suffer, they argue.

At the confluence of this debate about environmental preservation and economic development stands Chuck Clarke, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources. Mr. Clarke has held his post a little over a year, since being lured from a similar job in Washington State.

Most observers say Clarke has already made a significant difference in how business is conducted at the agency, whose offices wind through the red-brick Victorian structures of a former state hospital in Waterbury. Environmentalists and business people alike praise him as one of Gov. Howard Dean's best appointments.

Clarke's formula for success? Getting people to talk out issues and come to consensus, instead of butting heads. And getting his staff, which processes hundreds of permit requests each year, to be facilitators, not obstacles. ``We have to be more consumer-friendly; we have to see the citizen as the client,'' he says.

That approach may be a political necessity these days. Polls have shown a turn-around in the way this state's citizens weigh environmental concerns against economic development.

Stephen Holmes is deputy director for policy of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, an environmental advocacy group. ``For most of the last 20 years, Vermonters looked at the environment as ranking right up there with jobs,'' says Mr. Holmes, ``but now everybody's first question is, `What about jobs?''

Vermonters who still give environmental protection top priority worry that economic pressures could erode a regulatory structure built up over the past two decades. That structure, in their view, has kept the state relatively free of the unsightly strip-mall development the National Trust warns about.

``You only have to drive across the border to New Hampshire or Massachusetts'' to see what strong environmental controls have done for Vermont, says Robert Lawson, a Brattleboro editor who publishes a newsletter on development issues. Reviewing development permits

Clarke emphasizes that his goal is to rationalize the process of granting and reviewing development permits, not weaken it. At present, he says, ``an applicant can be in four or five forums at once,'' with only the vaguest idea of how he's going to get a final ``yes'' or ``no.''

The process involves not only the two dozen-plus permits issued by Clarke's agency - water quality, air quality, and waste disposal, to name a few - but also an extensive citizen review of large-scale development projects authorized by the state's ground-breaking Act 250, passed in 1970.

The catalyst for Act 250 was ski-area development, an ever-active front in the war between environmental and business interests. Right now, the flash-point is withdrawal of water from rivers to feed the resorts' thirst for snowmaking capacity. Back then, it was unregulated condominium development at burgeoning ski areas in southern Vermont.

A Republican governor, Deane Davis, thought it was time to blow the whistle before similar developments sprouted haphazardly all over the state. The legislator appointed to head the commission charged with drawing up a blueprint for protecting Vermont's environment was Arthur Gibb.

Mr. Gibb, a veteran of countless policymaking skirmishes, still serves on the state Environmental Board, an appeals panel set up by Act 250. ``The big question,'' recalls Gibb, ``was were you, or were you not, going to project the regulatory power of the state directly on development?''

The answer was ``yes,'' with some conditions. Size was a factor: A development had to involve at least 10 acres, for example, before it fell under Act 250, unless the locality involved lacked permanent zoning bylaws. More important, the land-use planning part of the new law was ultimately scrapped.

``The idea of state zoning was strongly resisted,'' Gibb says. The political consensus was that Vermonters would not countenance broad state intrusion into local affairs.

Even backers of Act 250, however, say the absence of clear land-use provisions left the state with essentially ``half a law'' - a regulatory scheme minus a forward-looking plan to guide it. There are ongoing efforts to fill the planning gap; the latest is an experiment with ``growth centers'' in Brattleboro and Hinesburg, in the south. John Ewing, president of the Bank of Vermont in Burlington, says the idea is to encourage towns to cluster development around their centers, in traditional New England style.

Then, says Mr. Ewing, who serves on a Dean-appointed committee considering revisions in Act 250, towns will know where to put new infrastructure. Then, also, the Act 250 approval process can be a little less contentious, Ewing says.

At the heart of the act are 10 criteria for judging the suitability of developments - from ``undue water or air pollution'' to ``unreasonably dangerous'' transportation conditions to ``undue adverse effects on aesthetics.'' The criteria are applied by nine citizen-staffed district commissions, which decide whether a developer gets a permit. The decentralized citizen boards, rather than a single state panel, was Governor Davis's idea, Gibb says. He ``wanted to get as close to the people as possible.''

Gibb acknowledges a need to refine the process he helped launch 23 years ago. He has seen developers go through an agony of delay and he, like Secretary Clarke, favors streamlining the state's many-armed permit process - including some changes in Act 250. Without that, says Gibb, the ``nightmare'' shared by all the act's framers could materialize: a reputation for being so strict that businesses shun the state.

According to Rutland's Mayor Wennberg, that nightmare has already enveloped Vermont. ``The uncertainty is killing us,'' he says, recounting how the developer of a mall near Rutland had to endure six years aboard the state's ``regulatory juggernaut'' before breaking ground. A core problem, he says, is the ability of any party, even those without a direct legal interest in a project, to appeal decisions made by district Act 250 commissions to the state Environmental Board. From there, appeals can reach into the state courts.

In his office on the slopes of Killington Peak, which towers above Rutland, Henry Lunde muses, ``Would you be excited about coming to a state where you're just going to end up in court?'' Mr. Lunde's company, Killington Ltd., is Vermont's (and the East's) largest ski area, with a $14 million payroll and a 6,000-to-8,000-acre expanse of land. True to its president's comment, the company is currently in a legal battle over plans to develop a large tract of wilderness the state has designated as critical bear habitat.

Lunde, who remembers getting one of the first environmental permits issued under Act 250, proclaims himself ``150 percent'' behind the aims of the law. But he decries the lack of specific standards in its application. ``Undue effect on water quality,'' he says, ``how do you define that?'' He also laments the appeals process that lets ``the outside world'' - notably environmental groups and citizens' advocacy groups - hold up projects.

The solution put forward by Wennberg is to limit appeals only to parties with a ``statutory'' interest in a project - the permit applicant and the city involved, for example, as well as abutting landowners and municipalities.

But to the Natural Resources Council's Mr. Holmes that would remove the public participation that undergirds Act 250. ``The foundation of the law,'' he says, ``is that it's a citizen-based process that allows people to voice their concerns.''

The charge that ``frivolous'' appeals clog the Act 250 system is overblown, according to Michael Zahner, director of administration for the state Environmental Board. ``The majority of appeals involve very substantive issues. I don't think individuals bring appeals lightly.''

There's certainly nothing light about the appeals swirling around the Wal-Mart controversy. With stores built or about to be built in every other state, Vermont is the giant retailer's only holdout.

In Williston, Vt., a small town within hailing distance of Burlington, Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG) is striving to keep it that way. And the group has powerful allies. US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, for instance, has publicly voiced his doubts about the appropriateness of Wal-Mart's move into Vermont. The Arkansas-based retailer has plans to construct both one of its regular stores and a Sam's Club outlet in Williston's Taft Corners commercial park, off Interstate 89.

Another store is planned for St. Albans, Vt., 20 miles to the north. Wal-Mart has won initial approval from local planning boards and the Act 250 district commissions, but opponents haven't given up.

A key issue is the big discounter's impact on town and regional economies. ``The scale is way out of proportion to what the region can handle,'' Linda Bradish says. She and her husband, Steve, are co-presidents of CRG. Wal-Mart's proposed 5.7-acre store would ``pull the retail from all the surrounding area and put more people out of business than a mall would,'' Mrs. Bradish says. CRG successfully fought off a mall developer a few years ago.

From their home on a side street not far from Williston's postcardlike center, the Bradishes can hear the low hum of traffic on I-89. A Wal-Mart would bring more of that traffic right into town. But that prospect doesn't bother everyone in Williston or in St. Albans. Economic survival at stake

``If you took a poll here tomorrow, it would be 65 percent for Wal-Mart and 35 percent opposed,'' says Emerson Lynn, editor of the St. Albans Messenger. He has editorialized against the big store, arguing that the economic survival of small downtowns throughout Franklin County, which borders on Canada, is at stake.

People have good reason to be for Wal-Mart, says Richard Gsottschneider, who heads the consulting firm of RKG Associates in Durham, N.H., and was hired by Wal-Mart to assess its economic impact on St. Albans. He agrees that some local stores would be hurt - particularly chain stores like Rich's or Ames that are already doing business in the area. ``But it will attract new stuff too,'' Mr. Gsottschneider says.

Franklin County is ``a relatively poor area with a high unemployment rate,'' Gsottschneider says, ``and here's an opportunity to reverse the process and bring in something that can stimulate growth.'' The battle over Wal-Mart, he adds, illustrates how the Act 250 process has ``bled'' small rural areas in the state of any chance for economic growth, since the law steers growth toward areas that already have the infrastructure and tax base to handle it.

The Wal-Mart controversy has made some downtown merchants in the state take a harder look at their own competitiveness. John Myhre's family has run the Skihaus, a ski apparel and equipment store in Middlebury, Vt., for 46 years. He recognizes that Wal-Mart can't be banned from Vermont, and he and other downtown Middlebury merchants have made a compact to bring their own salesmanship ``up a notch.'' They've hired a marketing director, for example.

``I've lived here all my life,'' Mr. Myhre says, ``and I've seen many, many changes in the state, but it remains unique.'' Then, with a note of concern, he adds: ``Within the context of believing that growth is necessary, I think we need to be very careful that we don't become another Connecticut.''

The kind of urbanization found in that fellow New England state is far over the Green Mountain horizon. But big retailers and mall developers will doubtless continue to find Vermont just as alluring as the tourists and natives do.

Few Vermonters will admit to being antigrowth - or antienvironment. But nearly everyone senses that today's economic doldrums are changing the rules.

Act 250 will be scrutinized as never before when the legislature reconvenes in January. By then, the proposals for fewer permits, stricter appeals, and greater finality may be as thick as the winter snow.

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