Dollar General foes end four-year fight; hope to see stronger zoning regulations in Chester

By Cynthia Prairie
©2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

After a four-year battle, the Chester group fighting the construction of a 9,100-square-foot Dollar General has decided to not seek a motion to re-argue the case before the state Supreme Court, giving the green light to the Zaremba Group out of Ohio to construct the building on Main Street in Chester.

Messages left at the office of Matt Casey, project manager of Zaremba Group, over the past seven days were not returned. The Telegraph was hoping to post at least a preliminary construction schedule for the project.

But Michael Normyle, Chester zoning administrator, said last Tuesday that he had just received an email from Casey requesting a meeting in late August to go over the parameters of the project and make sure Zaremba understand and meet all the 35 conditions that were imposed by the Development Review Board in its April 2012 approval.

“Whether we are talking about a J.C. Penney, a Dollar General or a Dollar Tree, there is a huge amount that a town can regulate — the size, appearance and placement.”
Jim Dumont
Attorney

Among those requirements are horizontal natural wood clapboard siding as opposed to vinyl; new sidewalks and curbs along Main Street; and a fire suppression sprinkler system. The DRB also is requiring that Dollar General turn its outside lights and signs on no more than 30 minutes before opening and turn them off no later than 30 minutes after closing.  You can read other conditions here.

Smart Growth Chester — an informal group of residents who organized around the idea that big box stores such as Dollar General — are not good for the economic health and aesthetics of Chester, isn’t smarting after the loss, despite four years of work and five failed appeals.

Instead, members and their attorney — Jim Dumont —  see a need for all Vermont towns — including Chester — to make major changes in local zoning and planning laws to stop the trend of turning Small Town VT into Everytown USA.

Shawn Cunningham, left, and Jim Dumont. Photos by Chester Telegraph.

Shawn Cunningham, left, and Jim Dumont. Photos by Chester Telegraph.

Shawn Cunningham* of Smart Growth Chester is worried that it will now be “open season” on Chester, especially given recent zoning changes to all auto-uses from Depot Street to Pleasant Street.  “Everyone (courts and lawyers) who has looked at this (case) has said that the way this is decided, unless you have real wording that gives your zoning language teeth, you have a pretty good chance of losing.  …  In the final analysis, we don’t have sufficiently concrete language to keep this from being built and it seems that the Chester Planning Commission isn’t taking that into consideration.”

Said attorney Jim Dumont,  “There are good arguments against why this store shouldn’t be built, how it is being built and where it is being built. We gave it our best shot and we lost.”

Asked what positive could come from the loss, Dumont said, “If Chester responds to this (in a way) that makes zoning more protective, that would be a positive outcome. Unfortunately, this case is another example of how difficult it is in Vermont to write zoning and planning in a way that the courts will enforce. The courts have said that the zoning we were relying on — at least in Act 250 — is not enforceable. The courts make it clear that it sets the bar very high as to what is acceptable zoning and enforcement.”

Jim Dumont

Jim Dumont

Dumont sees the problem as deeper than a planning board just changing the zoning regulations.  Instead he sees a lack of guidance on the state level. “I don’t think the regional planning commissions have done what needs to be done to inform towns just how high that bar has been set.”

“I don’t think the regional planning commissions have done what needs to be done to inform towns just how high that bar has been set.”
Attorney Dumont

“I agree with (Zaremba attorney) Alan Biederman that serving on a Select Board or a planning commission is good. But it isn’t enough if you don’t have the expertise to do the thing right. Most planning commissions and select boards who write and review regulations probably don’t realize how difficult it is to carry out a town’s wishes. … They (volunteers) don’t have the guidance to make town planning and zoning work. The state Supreme Court has been pretty consistent. It is time that the planning commissions pay attention to what they (the courts) have been saying for decades.”

“Regional planning commissions (of which there are 11 in Vermont), the Secretary of State’s office, the Office of Economic Development and Community Affairs are all places that can and should offer help. …”

Asked what changed in Vermont that allowed this influx in big box stores to small town Vermont, Dumont said, “Nothing changed. … whether we are talking about a J.C. Penney, a Dollar General or a Dollar Tree, there is a huge amount that a town can regulate — the size, appearance and placement. The change is the market. Dollar General has seen a niche and they are going for it. We would have the same problem with a WalMart if the town plans aren’t written in a way that can be enforced.”

When asked how Smart Growth could manage to carry the case through four years and six appeals, Cunningham said that his group has had wide grassroots support among Chester home owners and businesses. More than “100 residents, businesses and several state organizations stepped up to donate money to pay our lawyer as well as court costs, experts, and expenses like copying.” He added that the donations “ranged from $5 to $2,000 and more,” with quite a few donating several times.

*Shawn Cunningham is married to the reporter of this article and also reports for The Chester Telegraph on unrelated issues.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Melody Reed says:

    Thanks for fighting the good fight, and in the process exposing the problem with the Town Plan.

    What’s next, how do we prevent the next fiasco?