TOWNSHEND—At their regular meeting on June 12, the Selectboard unanimously voted to warn a Special Town Meeting for July 19.
Although Dollar General has inspired this Special Town Meeting, opponents of the chain discount store’s plans to build on the site of Lawrence’s Smoke House might be too late to stop the development.
With a purchase-and-sale contract signed by the owner of the parcel, unless Dollar General backs out because of contingencies like floodplain regulations, the project will move forward.
At the Selectboard meeting, Chairperson Kathy Hege acknowledged the Board had received a petition on May 25 from ad hoc grassroots community group, Townshend Area Residents Resist Dollar General, with “somewhere around 110” signatures.
The petition asked the Board to take action to implement interim zoning to protect the town’s scenic corridor.
Townshend has no zoning bylaws. Administrative Assistant Craig Hunt noted the town considered zoning proposals in 1977, 1984, and 1991, and voters “turned it down very forcefully."
Hege said the Board forwarded the petition to attorney Richard C. Carroll for review and advice, and received a letter from Carroll explaining what the Selectboard could and could not do.
No interim zoning
Hege read Carroll’s letter into the record. The gist: State statute prohibits the town from establishing interim zoning because Townshend has no zoning bylaws, and the town is not currently engaged in any actions — studies or hearings — advancing their implementation. This is covered under 24 VSA Section 4415.
Hunt noted, “‘interim’ is in the middle of, while you’re studying something,” and added, “you can’t have something interim between nothing and nothing.”
If the Selectboard adhered to the petition’s request as written, it would “short-cut the process required under statutes,” Carroll wrote.
“I do not think it is the proper petition,” Carroll wrote, explaining it’s the Planning Commission’s purview to either create zoning bylaws or direct the Selectboard to draft them.
What the Selectboard can do, Carroll said in the letter, is to call a Special Town Meeting to study the feasibility of implementing zoning bylaws. “This would be the first step in the process,” he wrote, and would require a hearing, studies, and a budget for this project. Carroll estimated the cost of the study’s expenses as “likely in the tens of thousands of dollars.”
Hege noted the Selectboard met on June 11 to decide whether they would hand the petition back to Townshend Area Residents Resist Dollar General, and ask them to revise it, or call a Special Town Meeting. They chose the latter.
“Technically, it’s not what the petition asked,” said Hege, but the Board decided “we need to take this to the entire assembly. They decide if we’re going to move forward, or let this die on the vine,” she added. Hege noted the Selectboard invited Carroll to attend Special Town Meeting to answer questions about statute.
Selectboard member Will Bissonnette said that by warning the Special Town Meeting, the Board is “doing what we can do to move the process forward.”
Terry Davison Berger, a member of Townshend Area Residents Resist Dollar General, thanked the Selectboard for holding the hearing and Special Town Meeting, “even though our petition was not worded the way it should be.”
The warning the Selectboard issued asks voters to decide “shall the town of Townshend conduct a town-wide study as to the feasibility of implementing zoning bylaws in the town of Townshend.”
If they note in the affirmative, the next article asks them, “will the town approve unbudgeted funds to complete said study.”
Peter Hoyt questioned Carroll’s estimate for the zoning bylaws study.
Hunt explained that those figures were accurate. The cost covers publications, mailings, “numerous hearings,” maps, surveys, and work with the Windham Regional Commission, he said, and generally costs “between $8,000 and $12,000 just to get it off the block."
Laura Richardson explained the opposition to Dollar General in Townshend. “We’re trying to prevent an influx of corporate-owned stores that don’t contribute to the community [and] uncontrolled development,” she said, and noted, “people come here to get away from that sort of thing."
But is there anything a small town and its residents can do when a giant, in the form of a national chain store with approximately $21 billion in revenue (2017 figures), decides it wants to move in — even against residents’ wishes?
Hoyt compared the meeting to “trying to close the gate after the horses [got] out,” and said he believes “we have no choice right now."
He asked if the Selectboard had any agency in determining the design of the store as “something tasteful, rather than a box."
Hege said the Board could hold up the Town Plan and say, “these are our rules and guidelines,” but she doesn’t see “where we have any negotiating room."
“We can ask,” said Bissonnette, “and they can certainly say ‘no.’"
As members of the Selectboard and Hunt explained, because the store is small enough to avoid the Act 250 permitting process, neither the state nor the town has jurisdiction over Dollar General’s plans, other than septic, building codes, water, and floodplain regulations — even with Townshend having a Town Plan.
After some discussion about whether zoning is appropriate for Townshend, resident Bob DiSiervo asked residents to look at Windham Regional Commission’s website to see what other county towns have for zoning bylaws. Berger noted zoning bylaws are “the most common land-use tool in Vermont,” and voters and local officials create and approve their own regulations.
“The proper way to do this is to avoid it in the future. Because this is that first lesson. This is what happens,” said Hege, who noted Dollar General has “got much deeper pockets than the town of Townshend.”