Selectboard nixes 24-hour business ban

Future firefighters intern in Williston

May 22
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Amid legal concerns, the Williston Selectboard decided it could not help a local gas station by banning 24-hour businesses.

The operators of Clark's Sunoco had asked for an ordinance limiting hours to sidestep their corporate landlord's mandate to stay open around the clock.

Two attorneys advised the town that the Selectboard could not legally restrict hours of business operation, at least not on its own.

"I don't see the Selectboard having the authority to limit hours," wrote attorney Paul Gillies in an e-mail to Town Manager Rick McGuire.

The Development Review Board could impose limits on hours as a permit condition for a new business, Gillies wrote. And the town, through the "general law of zoning," could limit hours for certain kinds of permitted uses. "But the Selectboard hasn't that jurisdiction," he wrote.

McGuire said he also consulted with Jim Barlow, an attorney with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, who concurred with Gillies.

After learning of the legal advice, the Selectboard, at its meeting Monday night, directed McGuire to write a letter to Liz and Allen Lemieux, the Sunoco station's proprietors, telling them that the Selectboard could not legally pass an ordinance limiting hours.

Liz Lemieux said she had been hopeful the town would help. Lemieux said she needed some time to think about her next move, but she and her husband will likely drop the proposal.

"That's probably pretty much it," Lemieux said. She added that efforts to persuade the station's owner, Massachusetts-based J.A. Sandri, to change the 24-hour requirement in their lease are probably "futile."

Clark's Sunoco, located on Vermont 2A near Interstate 89, has struggled to maintain staffing around the clock while ensuring employees working the graveyard shift maintain their quality of life and stay safe, Lemieux said. The station has been robbed twice in the past two years, both times during the early morning hours.

Even before the legal opinions were in, McGuire recommended the town reject the 24-hour business ban. He and some board members wondered about the practicality of the move in a town with many businesses that operate around the clock.

The couple told the board at an earlier meeting that they were only seeking hour limits on retail businesses. Just one other business in Williston, the Mobil station at Taft Corners, is open to customers around the clock.

McGuire acknowledged that the town could change zoning to limit business hours. But he noted that state statute requires zoning amendments to be initiated by the Planning Commission, which then makes a recommendation to the Selectboard.

Aside from those hurdles, McGuire said existing businesses are usually exempt from zoning changes under grandfather clauses.

The town of Williston has changed much since the Clark's Sunoco opened in 1984, long before the big-box stores moved in. Lemieux wistfully looked back to a time when limits on business hours were common.

"Were blue laws really that terrible?" she said. "But you can't go back."