Group objects to town

Appeal filed with Vt. Supreme Court

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

An environmental group has appealed a decision designating Taft Corners as the state’s first-ever growth center, arguing that it encourages the kind of big-box development the program was supposed to prevent.

The Vermont Natural Resources Council filed the appeal last week with the state Supreme Court. The organization claims last-minute changes to the growth center’s boundaries violated the intent of the legislation establishing the program.

“The growth center law was never intended to give out tax and other financial incentives to promote Wal-Mart and other big box development that is single-use, scattered and auto-dependent,” said Steve Holmes, sustainable communities director for VNRC, in a media release. “This new version of the growth center does just that.”

At issue is a small piece of the growth center, which includes about 700 acres, running east to west from the South Ridge subdivision to just past Harvest Lane and north to south from Allen Brook to Interstate 89.

The growth center approved by the state’s Expanded Downtown Board in October excluded the small piece of the Taft Corners Park retail center where Wal-Mart and The Home Depot are located. But the VNRC alleges that a last-minute request by a representative of developer Jeff Davis, whose company owns Taft Corners Park, swayed the board to include the parcels.

Davis confirmed that he sent a letter and had a representative testify at a hearing before the vote that Wal-Mart and The Home Depot should be included in the growth center, as they were in the town’s original application.

He said the appeal was a “politically motivated” action by environmentalists who disliked Taft Corners Park since it was built in the 1990s.

“It seems kind of silly to me that after 10 years they are still bitter about the stores out there,” Davis said.

He added that even those who don’t like the much-criticized retail outlets should realize that they will be redeveloped over time and the growth center designation will give Williston tools to improve the area.

John Hall, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which oversees the growth center program, said it made little sense to omit the big box stores from Williston’s designation. He said by including the stores the town will be better able to control future development.

Town Planner Lee Nellis declined to comment on the appeal, noting that Williston is a bystander in the legal fight. He simply hopes the town can still benefit from the designation.

Growth center status allows the town to apply for tax increment financing, which permits money to be borrowed against anticipated property tax revenue generated by new development. That money could fund a series of grid streets and sidewalks the town hopes will help convert Taft Corners into a pedestrian-friendly downtown.

Holmes said in an interview that the appeal is not aimed at the town of Williston, which he lauded for its cooperation with his group and others that advocate smart growth.

VNRC objects only to including Wal-Mart and The Home Depot in the growth center, which Holmes said sets a bad precedent for a program designed to promote compact growth and prevent sprawl.

“Since this is the first application of its kind, we think it is important it be done right because it sets a precedent for applications from other towns,” he said.