Allegations of purposeful delay aimed at Planning Commission

Rendering of new restaurant.

Last week, on his public Facebook page, Charlotte Crossings co-owner Mike Dunbar posted that he thought the town of Charlotte was delaying a Planning Commission hearing to discuss changing Land Use Regulations because the town didn’t want the regulations to change. He also posted a letter that his lawyer sent to the town alleging the same. The Planning Commission said the reasons for the delay are coronavirus-related and that the hearing will take place when it is safe to do so.

In April of 2018, the owners of the Route 7 property, Charlotte Crossings, which operates under Gemini Properties, LLC, were approved for a site plan for the property. The building has retail, office, and restaurant space. The current Land Use Regulations, which were adopted by the town in 2016, state that the regulations are “intended to ensure that site layout is safe, functional, and of a scale that is compatible with its setting and context, and consistent with these regulations.”

Since then, Dunbar, along with co-owner Debra Kassabian, have made changes to the original site plan that include increasing the square footage of the restaurant part of the building and adding parking spots. The Planning Commission decided that these changes required a new site plan; rather than going that route, Dunbar and Kassabian decided to petition to change the regulations.

Dunbar and Kassabian submitted a petition to the town clerk in mid-February requesting a hearing to change Charlotte’s Land Use Regulations pertaining to parking lot locations. The Planning Commission does not support this change. According to the Planning Commission Reporting Form posted on the town website, they think reducing the current standard “does not set a good precedent because any future application within the Town promoting front-yard parking design will compromise the Town’s long standing intent to maintain aesthetic character of the area, and alter it into a strip-mall style of development.” The form also mentions that part of the Town Plan is to preserve vistas and maintain Route 7 as a scenic travel corridor.

During its May 7 meeting, the Planning Commission decided that LUR hearings are too important an issue to take place via Zoom teleconferencing and that Vermont open meeting laws require the commission to make the hearings available to as many Charlotters as possible.

In a Facebook post earlier this week, Dunbar alleged, “It is clear they are using COVID-19 to delay our work simply because they do not agree with it. Ever heard of the saying ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’?” He shared a letter his lawyer, Kevin Brennan of Brennan Punderson & Donahue, sent to Planning Commission Chair Peter Joslin stating that Dunbar was “shocked and disturbed” that the hearing was delayed and called the commission’s rationale for that decision “arbitrary, random, and unjustified.” The letter also claims that since other matters have moved forward with the Planning Commission, Dunbar is being treated unfairly.

In a letter to The Charlotte News printed earlier this year, Joslin noted that there are approximately 80 potential amendments to the LURs and that the Planning Commission is in the process of reviewing them all and putting them on the ballot for the November 2020 general election. “These proposed amendments, by law, require two hearings by the Planning Commission and two by the Selectboard prior to putting them before the town for a vote.” He noted in an email to The Charlotte News earlier this week that, along with Dunbar’s request, the commission is also considering LUR amendments relating to East Charlotte Village and Act 143.

“We have taken guidance from the state, town counsel, and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which, under current circumstances, does not recommend holding hearings for amendments to Town Plans or Zoning bylaws at this time,” Joslin said.

Maura Carroll, executive director of the VLCT, said the issue is complicated. “So many things have come up in the course of these last couple months that people say, ‘You’d think this would be a simple question,’ but then some complexity just pops right into it.” The VLCT states on its website, “We do not recommend holding a public hearing during the public health emergency amid the stay-at-home order’s restrictions on public gatherings. Instead, we recommend that the legislative body, at a duly warned meeting, extend the hearing deadlines by a certain amount of time.”

Dunbar said that a lack of clear communication from the Planning Commission has left him frustrated. “We routinely have to request information about the status of our requests and process,” he said in an email. “Open communication from the town would help guide and keep all parties informed. There is an impact on having to wait on several fronts, which could be avoided. More upfront guidance on the process and increased coordination between the various town boards…could alleviate this.”

The hearing delay is causing issues for his business, Dunbar said, “And, I want to ensure that the citizens of Charlotte understand that while there’s a process in Charlotte, it’s often mired in bureaucracy.” He also said he hopes the issue can be addressed quickly without further legal action. “I am hopeful that it won’t come to that. I am a reasonable person. I hope they are too. We’re all just trying to do our best here. But, their delay is holding up me doing business, and that’s not good for me, or for the town.”

Joslin said in an email that the commission has to weigh public safety alongside the needs of local businesses. “The Planning Commission regrets delays that the pandemic has caused but it is our responsibility to ensure that the public can participate and be heard in public hearings, and it is our responsibility to find effective ways to comply with state statutory requirements under current circumstances.”

The next Planning Commission meeting is scheduled on Zoom for May 21. The link to attend the meeting is available on the Town of Charlotte web site.