Dollar General v. Smart Growth in Chester, VT

Today is a guest post by Scott and Wendy who write the blog, Northern New England Villages, with the mission of “Encouraging the preservation and restoration of towns and villages in Northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) through picture galleries, blogging, forums, social media and more…”

This post will address the pros and cons of a Dollar General store in Chester, VT, following that discussion with an introduction to form-based zoning. Regardless of your opinion, it is important to understand both sides of the issue and to consider solutions. Scott and Wendy are happy to answer your questions and respond to your comments. 

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Tiny Chester, Vermont (pop. 3,154 as of 2010) is garnering national attention in their fight against Dollar General. A recent article in the New York Times states:

While Wal-Mart has managed to open only four stores in Vermont and Target still has none, more than two dozen Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores have cropped up around the state. All three companies are thriving in the bad economy — between them, they have more than 20,000 outlets nationwide, selling everything from dog treats to stain remover and jeans to pool toys. Their spread through Vermont, with its famously strict land-use laws, has caught chain-store opponents off guard.

This case differs from battles with Dollar General in other Northern New England towns in that it is a green-field development. Across the border in Winchester, New Hampshire, Dollar General wants to demolish the historic Wheaton-Alexander House in order to build their mini-monster.

Generally, the application for demolition is where towns can prevail over Dollar General by denying them the ability to do so.  However, with a green-field development, the town cannot fall back on anti-demolition ordinances to protect their historical architecture.

Without the prospect of a demolition to galvanize the community against Dollar General, this battle has evolved into two distinct camps—the folks who want the economic development versus the Smart Growth folks who want to preserve the architectural heritage of the town.  Here is a run-down of the pros and cons:

PROS:

  • Preserving private property rights: The Dollar General will be built on a subdivided lot from the adjacent Zachary’s Pizza House—the owners must think this is a good deal and certainly have the right to sell their property. For more details, see this document from the Chester Development Review Board (pdf).
  • More retail sales/jobs and greater tax base: Vermont already has a tough time competing for retail sales against sales tax-free New Hampshire. A recent study (pdf) has found that Vermont annually losses a half billion in retail sales and 3,000 retail jobs to New Hampshire.
  • Higher property values: Enhanced local retail opportunities mean more choices and better prices. Also, in an age of $3 to $4 per gallon gasoline, traveling great distances to go shopping can get expensive which detracts value from more rural locations
  • Positive environmental impact: Closer retail means from less driving and gas consumption.
  • Restraint on trade and competition: Keeping Dollar General out would reduce competition in the retail sector which means local consumers will pay more.

CONS:

  • Overbuilding: There is already a Dollar General store in Springfield, Vermont which is less than 10 miles away.
  • Visual blight: The design will detract from the traditional New England architecture of Chester villages—see this slideshow for the visual impact (pdf)
  • Economic black-hole: Dollar General would drain sales from local businesses, take profits out-of-state and threaten the town’s overall economic viability. Many local businesses have been pillars of the community for years such as Lisai’s Grocery Store.
  • Negative environmental impact: The large surface parking lot, which is wastefully only used during store operating hours, will create runoff issues in an area prone to flooding. See this video on the flooding that occurred during Hurricane Irene before the store is built.
  • Lower property values: The presence of an undesirable chain store may discourage tourism and folks from buying second-homes in the area.

What do you think . . . did we miss any pros or cons?

Whichever side you fall on, Dollar General has seemingly won approval to move ahead with the project.  However, we hope that we can use this experience to better prepare for the next time. After all, Dollar General and related kin, Family Dollar, have already expressed their desire to further expand into Vermont and Northern New England.

Ultimately, a large part of the problem stems from how towns approach zoning. Current zoning practices are all about separating land uses from one another. This not only relegates form to the back of the line, but practically barred traditional, multi-use forms all-together.  Traditional zoning was, in part, an enabler of drive-everywhere suburbia.

One intriguing solution is to invert zoning so that form comes before use—called, appropriately enough, Form-Based Zoning (for more information see Form-Based Code Institute and this excellent article by the Michigan Association of Planning (pdf)). Unfortunately, form-based zoning is only now arriving in New England. A recent study on the history and challenges of form-based zoning in New England (pdf) found that:

Publicly-adopted form-based codes have gradually gained acceptance over the last fifteen years as an alternative to the principally use-based local zoning ordinances and by-laws that have dominated land use regulation in the United States since the 1920s. These codes were first adopted with the force of regulation in the south and west before they moved into other regions of the country. By and large, for reasons that remain open to discussion, the region with the lowest degree of penetration for form-based codes has been New England, where the first true form-based code was adopted only in 2005, and the total number of such codes in all six states is still in single digits. This article will discuss in detail three of the adopted codes in New England and three specific legal issues raised by those codes, starting with a review of form-based codes’ recent history and concluding that form-based codes are poised to enjoy wider acceptance in the region, which for the time being remains the nation’s “Final Frontier” for this alternative approach to land development regulation.

From Michigan Association of Planning: Smart Growth Tactics (page 4). Click for source.

As shown in the picture, even Borders Bookstore can find a way to fit in under Form-Based Zoning. So imagine if Dollar General were going into a building that fronted Main Street, had 2 to 3 stories with office space/apartments, wide, shaded sidewalks, back-ended street parking and only a single curb-cut for overflow/winter/tenant parking and deliveries. Would there be less opposition?

At any rate, we’ll have to save all of the ins-and-out of Form-Based Zoning for another post. The concluding point is simply that the current form of zoning is inadequate to preserving the historical character of our towns and villages. More battles like Chester, Vermont are on the way to Northern New England so new tactics, such as Form-Based Zoning, need to be developed now.

This Could Happen to You

Sprawl and poor development decisions pop up everywhere; infill that adversely effects its surroundings can happen almost anywhere, even in a historic district in picturesque Vermont.

Let’s use Fair Haven as an example. Traveling through Fair Haven, VT on VT Route 22A or VT Route 4 you’ll pass well kept historic buildings; the highways lead to a large open town green surrounded by historic commercial blocks, civic buildings, and significant homes overlooking the green, including two historic residences constructed of marble. This area is the Fair Haven Green Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Standing on the edge of the town green.

While driving into town from Route 4A West, something jumped out at me. See below.

Fair Haven, VT. Dollar General has moved in next to the public library.

What? Dollar General sits next to the Fair Haven Free Library, a 1908 Carnegie Library. And on the other side is the Fair Haven Grade School – in another historic building.

Fair Haven Grade School, Dollar General, Fair Haven Free Library.

This is located in the Fair Haven Green Historic District – a nondescript modern strip mall type shopping building sandwiched in between two architecturally significant buildings and adjacent to many more. It’s like a slap in the face – and it’s not even my town!

It gets worse. Take a walk further down the green and this is your vantage point:

The Dollar General sign must be at the very edge of the property line. Talk about ruining the view shed. Click and zoom in for the full effect.

Taken out of context, this library now looks like it’s the owner of the Dollar General sign. How did this happen? Granted it is just a sign, but in a state that outlawed billboards and in a historic district like Fair Haven, it’s unfathomable. You could say that a sign isn’t a billboard, but if you consider relative size to the building it’s in front of, that Dollar General sign might as well be a billboard. And to clarify, I’d have the same opinion regardless of the sign in front of the building. This is not an issue of Dollar General, although I was ready to be up in arms about yet another Dollar General. However, Google Maps shows the street view as a Ben Franklin store in the same building with an equally large sign in the same location.

Unfortunately, I cannot find any information about the development of this lot. The questions to ask are: (1) How did this happen? (2) Was it a question of zoning? (3) Why did no one stop it? (4) Why wasn’t a better infill design chosen for this lot? (5) Has the Town fixed the problem so this doesn’t happen again?

I’d consider this a cautionary tale, especially as small scale sprawl continues to be a threat. Since it’s not a strip mall, it’s easier to slip through the cracks. Chain stores are not necessarily the main issue here – poor “architecture” is the bigger problem of the moment. Be on the lookout, because poor development results in adverse effects to historic properties and districts and a decrease in quality of life (it’s all connected).