Vermont set to fight the megastore predators: A whole state has been declared 'endangered'. David Usborne went to the dream-town of Woodstock to find out why

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS shortly before noon and on the library lawn a brass band is assembling. Under the shade of green-and- white striped canvas, over-heated browsers at the St James Church summer fete crowd the lemonade stall. Someone minding the second-hand dresses exclaims: 'She's a proper woman. She's got real hips]'

With its white-spired churches, clapboard houses and covered bridges, the town of Woodstock, Vermont, is living up to its pristine and quaint image. And, in turn, it is helping to uphold that of all of Vermont as a last bastion in America of pastoral perfection. Even the single automatic cash machine is identified with a twee hand-painted sign.

But the invisible ramparts that have so long protected this small New England state from the urban ravages of the rest of modern America are about to crumble, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Last month the Trust took the startling step of putting the whole of Vermont at the head of its annual list of 'endangered' historic places.

The fear of the Trust is that Vermont, where even road-side billboards are barred from obscuring the views of round-topped mountains and glinting rivers, is about to succumb to 'Sprawl-Mart' - the all-devouring spread of anonymous shopping malls and megastores.

Richard Moe, the Trust's president, admits that naming a whole state as endangered - the honour is shared with 10 other locations, including downtown New Orleans and a 1,348-ft serpent-shaped earthwork in Ohio - was a little unorthodox. But Vermont, he says, is a unique place facing a unique danger: 'The intrusion of unplanned and uncontrolled development of large shopping malls, which threaten to suck the economic vitality of towns near by'.

So far, such an invasion has largely been resisted, thanks to a 21-year-old state law, Act 250, that laid down 10 tough environmental conditions that must be met by all new large developments. These include a requirement that any new construction should not 'adversely affect the aesthetics, scenic beauty, historic sites or natural areas' of the close surroundings.

There are signs, though, that even Act 250 is not the disincentive to developers that it once was. Most strikingly, the state is finally being stalked by surely the most voracious of megastore chains in America, the Arkansas-based Wal-Mart company, which has planted massive out-of-town discount centres in every state in the Union, bar this one, Alaska and Hawaii. Now the chain is seeking approval for two sites in northern Vermont. That the Trust's phrase 'Sprawl-Mart' so closely echoes 'Wal-Mart' is no accident.

'It's almost like an invasion; I've never seen anything like it,' laments David Coen, owner of Fishman's Department Store in the small farming town of Vergennes, on the west side of the state, close to Lake Champlain. He has long watched the approaching Wal-Mart army. 'They're coming up on both sides. They're there in Connecticut and Maine and right next door in New Hampshire already. And they're up there in New York state too.'

Fishman's, extending only into two rooms crammed with inexpensive clothes and assorted household items, was founded in 1905 by Mr Coen's grandfather and has outlived the five other dry-goods stores that were once in the town. Though he defends free enterprise, Mr Coen cannot but welcome the Trust's initiative. Two Wal- Marts in the state - population 560,000 - would virtually soak up all the available trade, he says. And, like the Trust, he fears the impact on communities like Vergennes could be disastrous.

But not everyone in the state is impressed with the Trust's designation, even though it has no real legal significance. 'It's a gross over-statement of what's happening here. This is still overwhelmingly a rural state,' says Chris Barbieri of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. 'Of course we have some development because . . . people need jobs and they need places to live.'

Back in the idyll of Woodstock, surrounded on all sides by steep wooded mountains, it is indeed hard not to wonder whether the Trust is over-reacting. Perhaps Vergennes and other Vermont towns are indeed endangered. But this town? From an over-crowding of chocolate-box art galleries, over-priced tourist shops and Range Rovers, perhaps.

(Photographs omitted)