Our opinion: Time to rethink zoning in Townshend

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The news that Dollar General is eyeing a parcel on Route 30 in Townshend certainly got people's attention.

But other than convincing the Tennessee-based retailer that it should look elsewhere, Townshend would appear to have little way to prevent the growing company from buying the Lawrence's Smoke Shop property.

What the retailer has in mind, according to plans filed with the town, is demolishing the existing building and putting up a 7,500-square-foot store. A spokeswoman for the company told the Reformer that they're in "due diligence phase," but have yet to make a final commitment to the plan.

The parcel in question is less than 1 acre, which means it doesn't qualify for Act 250 review. And Townshend has no zoning ordinance with which to encourage the kind of development it wants — or discourage the development it doesn't want.

And so, Townshend might be stuck with a proposed use that's out of character with its surroundings.

Townshend has considered zoning before, and decided that it wasn't wanted or needed. Perhaps it's time to reconsider.

It's understandable that people don't like what being told what they can and can't do with their property. But not everyone who owns property in Vermont lives in Vermont, or cares if their proposed use is in the community's shared best interest.

In a time when only residents owned property, one could count upon community pressure as a means of de facto zoning. Sure, you could build a miniature golf course with flood lights and giant fiberglass dinosaurs on your land, but then you'd have to answer for it at town meeting, at the general store, at church and everywhere else.

That's not the case for Dollar General.

According to published reports, the chain intends to build 900 new stores nationwide in 2018 and plans to add fresh produce in 450 stores. It's a success story in a retail industry that has otherwise struggled with meeting the profit demands of vulture capital ownership.

But Dollar General's success could spell trouble for mom and pop general stores in Townshend, Jamaica and Newfane. And it's certainly not what visitors to our state come here to see and experience.

Some attention has been turned on the current owners of the land and whether they should sell to Dollar General. But that strikes us as unfair, as well as an impractical way for a town to encourage or discourage development. The better way to manage property usage is to have rules on the front end, not unwarranted scorn on the back end.

It might be too late for Townshend to do anything about Dollar General, if the company's plan moves forward. But it would seem prudent for the town to reconsider enacting a zoning plan. That would give Townshend residents some measure of control when the next out-of-town developer comes to town and makes a proposal that doesn't fit its character.

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