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.

Preservation + Smart Growth + Environmentalism = Friends?

In the historic preservation line of work, we want to save old (i.e. historic) significant buildings. The environmentalism (green and sustainability) movement wants to maintain and improve existing buildings, because the buildings previously constructed automatically require fewer resources than new construction. Smart Growth involves new development that is on par with values such as walkability, economic and building ranges, mixed land use, open space, and predictable development, among others. Note, however, that Smart Growth is not opposed to demolition, as preservationists often are opposed. Thus, these three movements, or fields, concerning our built environment (preservation, sustainability, and Smart Growth) are similar, but different. Theoretically, these philosophies and practices overlap in many instances, yet in practice, not as much.

On the Greater Greater Washington blog, David Alpert, discusses these issues in his post, Preservation and Smart Growth can be friends, not rivals.  In this post, Alpert reflects on a blog post by the Director of the Smart Growth Program in Washington DC, Kaid Benfield. Benfield’s post, In sustainable communities, architecture, and preservation, does beauty matter? Should it? Both writers bring up too many discussion points for one post on Preservation in Pink, but I’ll start with an overview of their written thoughts, and then pose some discussion topics, which can be explored in upcoming posts.

Benfield begins with a discussion on the fact that many buildings are approaching the “historic” mark of 50 years old, which means that it can be evaluated for significance, for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. And because this building, such as an ugly grocery store that the community does not like, is now 50 years old, possible demolition and replacement causes a stir. He asks, will we preserve Wal-Marts just because they are 50 years old?  Shouldn’t beauty and lovability of buildings be considered when determining what is worthy of preservation, what deserves our support? He touches on the idea that without standards other than “historic” at 50 years old, preservation can actually be a hindrance to sustainability practices.  In other words, sometimes, “historic” buildings without significance can actually hurt new, sustainable development because people are so afraid of what might go in its place (NIMBY).

Alpert, continues on this idea that there is not a designation between buildings worthy of preservation vs. those that should not be preserved.  If an entire community wants change, then preventing it is not helping the community. Thus, proponents of historic preservation and Smart Growth tend to be wary of one another, even though these fields go hand in hand. After all, historic communities are often the most walkable and illustrate the concepts of Smart Growth.  To this, Alpert adds that preservation is a political movement, as is environmentalism and one should not consider itself superior to the other. Everyone needs to work together.

As you can see, there are days of discussion topics here. Here are some questions to consider:

1. Does preservation, in fact, have methods of determining what is significant, i.e. worthy of preservation? It does. So, how are people abusing this? Are preservationists fooling those who are unaware? Do we sometimes forget about the National Register‘s standards for evaluating historic significance?

2. Will we ever get to the point of preserving Wal-Marts (and similar places)? How many of them? All of them or just examples?  What about suburban development tracts? Do we need to preserve every 1980s colonial revival house when they turn 50?

3. Does the 50 year mark need to change? Why was 50 chosen in the first place?

4. Why is there mistrust between preservation, Smart Growth, and environmentalism when they all speak of similar ideals? How can we create a friendlier discussion? What are the benefits and disadvantages of each of them? What would be an ideal situation for all three to work together and showcase their best efforts?

5. Aside from significance, is it ever okay, by preservation standards, to demolish a building for the construction of a new one? What about by environmental standards?

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This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is lively enough to spur some discussions and thoughts. If you find other topics worthy of discussion, please share. All opinions are welcome. To clarify, I don’t pretend to be any expert on any of these issues. First and foremost, I identify myself as a preservationist, but one who is interested and believes in preservation working with movements such as sustainability and Smart Growth. And now, I feel like I have given myself homework…

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Thank you to Andrew Deci for sending the blog links and suggesting a discussion on PiP.