A petition proposing interim zoning measures to cap big-box stores at 50,000-square-feet in Middlebury has one primary purpose: to maintain the intent of the current town plan and zoning statutes. Doing nothing leaves the town open to costly lawsuits by applicants who could easily fight the nebulous wording in the town's current Â plan.
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In Middlebury, the issue centers on the clear intent within the town plan to limit any large-scale development that would cause "undue adverse economic impact on the downtown." The town fathers' intent, clearly, was to put into place measures that would maintain the vibrancy and vitality of the downtown retail district, and promote the growth of locally-owned, independent businesses throughout the community. Â
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But the measure leaves the door ajar for interpretation. How, for example, can it be determined that a big-box store would have an adverse economic impact? History would show that Wal-Marts have devastated thousands of small downtown retail districts throughout the nation. On the other hand, a theoretical economic argument can be made suggesting that big-box stores draw commerce to communities that then benefits surrounding stores. Like economic arguments that call for tax cuts to boost the national economy and the rich, which will eventually trickle down to the poor, such arguments are difficult to prove wrong until history determines that, indeed, the poor got poorer while the rich got richer. But, even then, there are those who deny such evidence.
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Leaving the town vulnerable to such circular economic arguments is not in the community's best interest.
The petition, which was signed by 1,100 people -- most of whom are from the greater Middlebury area -- urges the selectboard to adopt the interim measure until tighter language can be drafted into the upcoming town plan update due this summer. It is important to understand that the petition does not change the intent of current zoning. On the contrary, allowing a big-box store to locate in Middlebury under current language would clearly violate the intent of past zoning measures and the clear intent of previous selectboards.
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One must wonder, therefore, why any town board would resist an interim measure whose intent is to invigorate language that is already in the town plan. This is particularly true when the measure is an effort to avoid the type of costly lawsuits that often result from language that is less than specific.
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Selectboard chairman John Tenny is right to recently suggest (see story Page 1) that there is no immediate "crisis" that needs to be met. But that is precisely the point of the interim measure: to avoid a crisis, not wait for one to develop and then have to face the costly litigation -- and community upheaval -- that might entail. Enacting the interim measure is exactly the type of pro-active thinking that keeps communities strong, vibrant and united in spirit and purpose. Or would the selectboard prefer to wait until a big-box store files a permit and, consequently, drag the community into conflict? Â
Are there legitimate reasons for the 50,000-square-foot cap? Plenty. The most frequently heard recount the historical facts of downtowns that have been ravaged by Wal-Mart's predatory practices: 84 percent of its customers come from area businesses; when Wal-Mart comes to town it typically creates 140 jobs, but an average of 230 jobs are lost; studies show wages decline and poverty increases after a Wal-Mart has entered the market; and the scale of big box stores is often overwhelming, including the typical Wal-Mart supercenter which averages 150,000-square-feet -- about a third of what is currently downtown. Detrimental change usually follows: downtowns become less vibrant, commercial property in the area is devalued. That's not speculation, that's fact based on what has happened over the past 30 years. Â
But there are other reasons, not so frequently discussed, that apply more specifically to Middlebury. Consider how even the threat of a big-box store moving into the Middlebury area can stifle the will of others to develop here. If a potential entrepreneur had an inclination to start an independently-owned department store in town, does one think it likely if Wal-Mart loomed on the horizon? Or if an existing paint store, hardware store, or five-and-dime had an inkling to expand into other markets, would they willingly invest a bundle if they thought a big box store would soon move in and challenge that investment? Â
On the other hand, if the town's zoning language positively established a level playing field within the community -- where no single business was allowed to dominate others by an overwhelming scale -- then other entrepreneurs would more likely be willing to invest with confidence. Allowing big-box stores into a community like Middlebury, Bristol, Brandon or Vergennes is, in itself, anti-business. Firming up the town's existing language would encourage more independently owned businesses to invest here; it is, in short, pro-business.
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Another important reason to place a cap on the size of retail stores is that other big-box stores come after one gets established. Home Depot likes to piggyback next door to Wal-Mart; Best Buys are also a frequent neighbor; and if the location is big enough, another gas station, fast food places, a drive-in bank, and car wash will be there if at all possible -- leaving vacant the current sites they occupy. (These are not usually new businesses, but relocations of existing businesses often moving away from the town center.)
If any Middlebury resident or selectboard member doubts that Wal-Mart alone would hurt the downtown's economic vitality, there is no question that a host of big-box stores on the edge of town would seriously harm the downtown.
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The interim measure, which will be presented at the selectboard's meeting Tuesday night, would allow the community an opportunity to consider such questions without being in the throes of a crisis. It would avoid pitting one group against another because there is no urgent battle to wage -- just thoughtful consideration of how town residents would like the community to grow. For all these reasons, the interim measure should garner the selectboard's enthusiastic support.