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Public will have say in St. Albans Wal-Mart

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ST. ALBANS TOWN -- The Development Review Board has all the technical information it needs and will now give the public a chance to question the team trying to win approval for a Wal-Mart in Franklin County.

After three hours of testimony Thursday night, board Chairwoman Cheryl Teague said it would be best to allow the public to comment on the project at a future meeting.

"You just can't do it all in one night," she said. Attendees at earlier board meetings have complained they must wait until the end of meetings -- sometimes 10 p.m. or later -- before being allowed to speak.

No date was set for the meeting with the public. If past sessions are a guide, the board might expect a substantial turnout. A June meeting drew more than 500 people to a discussion of the proposed store.

Economics and traffic were the focus for much of Thursday's meeting.

Larry Copp of Economic Policy Resources Inc. in Williston, which did the economic study for the project, said the addition of a Wal-Mart in the county would amount to a "moderate" increase in employment.

Although a Wal-Mart would employ more than 300, the net gain to employment is likely to be less than that partly because other retailers will trim staff to cut costs and compete with the world's biggest retailer, Copp said.

The development team also released a traffic study it was forced to redo after it was discovered the study was conducted while the Highgate Commons shopping center was empty. Peebles and T.J. Maxx now occupy the space.

Even with the addition of the two retailers, Roger Dickinson of Lamoureux and Dickinson, a traffic engineering firm that performed the study, said the new work did not produce drastically different results. The original

study said traffic improvements needed for a store included the widening of U.S. 7 and the addition of a series of traffic signals near the store.

Board member David Schofield referred to the study as "black magic."

Dickinson responded by saying the traffic study was only an estimate of driving patterns if the store is built. "We can't account for every possible trip-making pattern."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in December announced plans to build a 147,000-square-foot store on U.S. 7 less than a mile from Exit 20 of Interstate 89.

Conservation groups have asked Wal-Mart to consider a smaller store in the city, but Wal-Mart has said a smaller, city store wouldn't fit with its customers or the company.

The company has said it initially considered a 209,000-square-foot store that would have included gasoline and grocery sales. That plan was scrapped, the company said, in part because of "community concerns about size."

The proposed store could open as soon as December 2005, the project's lead developer, Jeff Davis, has said.

A contingent of at least two dozen residents showed up at the Thursday meeting, green ribbons around their arms and buttons reading "If they build it! We won't come!" Sue Knightes, 57, of St. Albans City said the ribbons were a "show of unity against the Wal-Mart proposal."

She said she was concerned that even though Wal-Mart has said produce and meats would not be sold, other grocery items will be.

"There's still some work that needs to be done" in explaining what the new store will be, she said.

In other business Thursday:

+ Board member Ernie Levesque, who attended an earlier meeting with a hat that read "St. Albans Needs a Wal-Mart," declined to abstain from Wal-Mart discussions. The Vermont Natural Resources Council had said the hat showed a conflict of interest on Levesque's part. Teague said the board cannot force Levesque to withdraw from the meetings.

+ Residents of St. Albans City and Swanton likely to oppose Wal-Mart, and a group of what Teague said she believed were "pro-Wal-Mart" residents, were granted "interested-party status." The designation means they will be allowed to speak first at the public-comment meeting.

An interested-party petition was denied a group of residents from Fairfield and St. Albans Town because too few homeowners signed the petition.

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