In late January, the Select Board in Bennington, Vermont, voted unanimously to ban stores over 75,000 square feet and to require retail development projects larger than 30,000 square feet to pass a community impact review.
Town officials said the measure was needed to ensure adequate review of the economic and community impacts of large-scale retail development, protect the viability of Bennington’s existing commercial areas, and maintain competition by preventing a single retailer from dominating the local market.
The Select Board began discussing a big-box ordinance last summer when Wal-Mart expressed interest in building a 150,000-square-foot supercenter in this town of 9,200 people in the southwest corner of the state. Bennington already has a 50,000 square foot Wal-Mart, which would have been vacated had the supercenter, slated for a site about a mile away, been approved.
(A football field is roughly 50,000 square feet. For a visual illustration of various store sizes see How Big is Too Big?)
Citizens turned out in large numbers to voice opposition to the Wal-Mart proposal at a public hearing and at a community forum sponsored by the Bennington County Regional Commission and the Vermont Smart Growth Collaborative.
Soon afterwards, the Select Board enacted a temporary moratorium on construction of big-box stores, effectively blocking Wal-Mart’s plans, and began working on a big-box ordinance.
The new ordinance limits stores to no more than 75,000 square feet in one commercial district and 50,000 square feet in the rest of the town.
Proposals for stores over 30,000 square feet must submit to a community impact review conducted by an independent consultant chosen by the city. The cost of the review is to be paid by the developer.
The review will weigh the number of jobs created by the store versus jobs lost at existing businesses, the store’s impact on the cost of public services, and any tax revenue losses resulting from a decline in the economic viability of the downtown or other established commercial areas.
The analysis will also estimate how much revenue generated by the project will be retained and re-directed back into the local economy. Locally owned stores are likely to fare better on this measure than national chains, because they generally devote a larger percentage of their revenue to local wages and buy more goods and services from nearby businesses.
Under the ordinance, city officials may approve stores only if the review determines that they will not have an undue adverse impact on local wages, housing costs, or the ability of the city to provide services.
2/16/05 UPDATE – An Ohio-based developer has gathered enough petition signatures to force a voter referendum on Bennington’s new large-scale retail bylaw. The election will be held in late March or early April. The developer wants to build a 112,000-square-foot Wal-Mart superstore.