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Bill to cap 'big box' size could create state legacy

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A Senate bill that would cap the size of big-box stores at 50,000 square feet in every community in the state offers a compelling solution to the big-box store angst many towns face when a big box store files a permit to build. The bill goes a bit too far, however, in making the restrictions too onerous, and heavy-handed. With a few modifications, however, the existing bill can become a mechanism that gives communities the control that should have always been theirs, and, as a bonus, the initiative creates an exciting national marketing campaign for the state.

The bill, as currently drafted, includes these provisions:

·   A 50,000 square foot cap would be placed on individual retail stores in all Vermont communities.

· A measure is included that allows communities to change the 50,000 square foot limit to 75,000 square feet in certain designated districts within the town, or to reduce the limit to something smaller. (See story, Page 3A.)

· Municipalities could create a panel to require the applicant of any mega-store to provide community impact studies that outline the pros and cons of the project to the community.

The bill's strengths are numerous.

First, it boosts the economic security of small, independent retailers throughout Vermont. These are the businesses that make up the heart and soul of Vermont communities. They're the ones that donate to the Rotary and Lions clubs, the little league baseball teams, the squirt hockey programs, the school Year Book, Boy and Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, swim teams, all school sports teams, the senior play, and on and on. They also provide a great number of community leaders, whether they be on town or school boards, in business associations, helping the United Way, and on and on. The same can not be said of most big-box stores, and it's a crucial point for small communities.

Second, the bill gives communities the upper hand when discussing how they want to grow. One of the most egregious mistakes of the existing practice is that big-box developers stifle and preclude community debate by doing their research in secret and then filing for the permit as if the project were a done deal. Under the proposed bill, the community discussion would come first and town residents would make crucial decisions knowing what all the cards are before any hand is played. That's a stacked deck in the town's favor, but it should be because huge projects can significantly change the character of a community.

Third, the bill encourages planning for growth. It's been talked about for years; still, some towns haven't.

Fourth, just imagine the national publicity. The headlines practically leap off the page: "Vermont rejects sameness; bill would protect towns' unique character," or "Vermont champions New England charm, says no to big-box drabness," or "Vermont rolls out 'welcome mat' to independent retailers, bill is only one in nation to level retail playing field while maintaining tight-knit communities." or "Vermont gets it: Charm sells, tourists don't flock to cookie-cutter towns." It's a promotion tailor-made for chambers of commerce with vision.

If the state tourist department can't take that pitch and knock it out of the country for a Grand Slam, they're not understand­ing the drab sameness that has sucked the lifeblood out of so many communities throughout the country. Such a campaign is not just good for tourism, but it's also ideally suited to attract work-at-home professionals who can live anywhere in the nation but choose Vermont because of its charm, uniqueness and awareness of what makes small-town life so special.

That said, a caveat or two should be added to the bill before it passes out of the House and Senate. First, the state's largest communities, at the very least, need a provision allowing them to seek exemption from the bill's 75,000 square foot limit provided an applicant requests permission to build; the community holds a lengthy discussion on the issue; and a majority, or supermajority, of the public agrees to the proposal.  

The problem is apparent when one realizes that the bill, as is currently drafted, would prevent any future mega-stores in Chittenden County. If Costco, or Filenes or Wal-Mart, for example, were to close, no single retailer would be allowed to replace them in the same space.   That's overly restrictive. There has to be a recognition that some of the largest communities in Vermont may be well-suited to larger stores, and that those communities may want them.

With a few modifications, however, the bill could easily be fine-tuned and could possibly sail through the Senate and House and earn the governor's signature -- an achievement that's sure to leave a long-lasting legacy.

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