Tuesday March 19, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The state Environmental Court has accepted the terms of a settlement reached by groups that had opposed an expansion of the Walmart on Northside Drive.

The Vermont Natural Resources Council and Citizens for a Greater Bennington had been opposed to a plan by developer Jonathan Levy to nearly double the size of the current Walmart. Levy's plans have been tied up in legal battles and appeals for nearly eight years, but a settlement agreement will end their opposition, VNRC Executive Director Brian Shupe said Monday.

The main component in the settlement is $200,000 in payments from BLS Bennington, the company that owns the shopping center, to support the viability of downtown Bennington, according to Shupe. The settlement also includes additional riparian plantings to enhance water quality protection, and a separate payment of $25,000 from BLS Bennington to support projects to maintain, enhance or restore the Walloomsac River watershed, he said.

Despite the payments, Meg Campbell, who heads Citizens for a Greater Bennington, said she does not consider the settlement "triumphant victory." Still, she said the group is "satisfied that our efforts over the last seven years will result in an opportunity to provide tangible investment in improving the vitality of downtown Bennington."

She said the settlement will hopefully "meet the material needs and community desires of all the residents of Bennington."

Levy first secured local permits from the town of Bennington in 2006 to double the size of the existing Walmart to about 112,000 square feet. He has also received an operational storm water permit from the state Agency of Natural Resources. Levy was granted a construction general permit from ANR in July 2012.

The Environmental Court ruled in favor of VNRC and the citizen's group last April, finding that the local District 8 Act 250 Commission should have granted the groups party status during the commission's hearings on the project. As a result of the settlement, new hearings will not be needed.

VNRC attorney Jamey Fidel said the state Environmental Court's ruling will help other opposition groups navigate the permit process in the future.

"The District Commission's attempt to keep us and the citizens' group from participating was counter to a citizen friendly process," Fidel said. "The Environmental Court clarified, in a precedent setting ruling, that there should not be a rigorous bar for allowing neighbors and interested organizations to participate with the full rights of parties. We consider the Court's ruling a significant victory in this case."

Other appeals are still outstanding. The owners of the Mount Anthony Country Club have appealed Levy's Act 250 land use permit as well as a storm water permit issued by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources last July.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami