Charlotters concerned about conflicts of interest, impact of potential development

By Chea Waters Evans, News Editor

After years of work and considering more than 70 potential Land Use Regulation (LUR) amendments, the Planning Commission’s role came to a close on the issue at Monday night’s Selectboard meeting with the final hearings on proposed amendments to the Town Plan and LURs. The many changes up for vote on Town Meeting Day on March 2 were mostly overshadowed by two ballot items. One is a proposed amendment to the Town Plan that would expand the East Charlotte Village Commercial District’s borders; the other concerns zoning changes that would allow denser development within that district. The changes stem from a survey of East Village residents that was completed in 2010.

The Friday and Monday Zoom hearings were the last opportunities for public comment before the articles are published in the Town Report, which heads to the printer on Thursday in order to meet public warning deadlines before voting day. In addition to the Selectboard, more than 50 people attended Monday’s meeting.

During the meetings there was confusion about the exact size of the current commercial district and how much bigger it would get should the Town Plan amendment pass. In a conversation with The Charlotte News on Tuesday, Town Planner Larry Lewack said he consulted with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission to get the exact acreage figures.

The East Charlotte Village Commercial District (ECVD) is currently 19.79 acres, and the amendment to the Town Plan would increase it to 43.64 acres acres, adding a sector of land on the southeast corner of the intersection of Spear Street and Charlotte Hinesburg Road, crossing Spear Street and including property on the southwest corner of that intersection, which is also known as Baptist Corners.

East Village resident David Adsit said he thought that because there isn’t “complete information” available regarding potential environmental impact, taxpayer burden, and wastewater infrastructure, the items are “just not ready” to head to voters.

Brownie Adsit, who also lives in the area, agreed. Noting that impact studies aren’t required until after the amendments are approved, he said increasing the boundary of the commercial district “without knowing the impact makes zero sense to me; to not do impact studies is just totally backwards and ridiculous to me.” Dina Townsend agreed and added that she worried about comprehension on the part of the general voting population, considering that there is “too much confusion from people who are investing their time into learning” about the issues.

The increased density issue prompted participation during both meetings from Clark Hinsdale, a former Charlotte resident, who owns the property referred to as the Sheehan House on the southwest corner of the proposed commercial district. The expanded commercial district boundaries would include this lot; in conjunction with passage of the East Village LUR amendment regarding density, it would allow Hinsdale to develop his five acres on the corner into senior housing. Hinsdale said that it’s important when considering the issue to think about numbers. “Be sure that we understand the math,” he said.

The math on development proved also to be a point of contention for many; Lewack cleared up this issue on Tuesday as well. Using the metaphor of planting old seeds in a garden, he explained that you can plant a bunch of old bean seeds and theoretically have the potential for dozens of bean plants, but the reality is that you will have considerably less than that.

With the current zoning laws, he said, “If everything lined up to make it possible, with adequate septic and water supply, there could be up to 25 units of housing, commercial development, or a combination—that number is accurate,” he said. “If somebody were to propose some of that to include affordable housing, they could potentially add 10 units; if somebody wanted to make the development into elder housing, there could be 20 additional units on top of the 25.” That would be either 25 regular units, 35 affordable housing units, or 45 senior housing units.

With the new regulations, that would increase, he said. “If we bump out boundaries to what’s been proposed, and if we change the rules to match, that 25 goes up to 45 potentially, and those density bonuses still apply…but there’s a lot of ifs there.” The ifs he’s talking about include septic capacity and water mains, and, depending on usage, could have to go through Planning Commission, Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA), and/or Selectboard review.

Meeting participant comments were overwhelmingly against increasing the boundaries and changing the density zoning requirements, with the exception of Hinsdale and Selectboard member Carrie Spear. There are six landowners whose land would be included in the expanded ECVCD boundaries; Selectboard members Carrie Spear and Frank Tenney are two of those six.

Charlotter Amy Brosius asked during public comment whether or not any Selectboard members had a conflict of interest that required them to recuse themselves from the Monday vote. Chair Matt Krasnow and members Louise McCarren and Jim Faulkner all said no. Tenney said that he was not going to recuse himself from the vote despite owning property in the zone and the fact that his brother owns a store and land in the district. “The property I have already has one residence per acre,” he said, and noted that he thinks any density changes “won’t affect what I have there now.”

Spear also decided not to recuse herself; she owns Spear’s Store in Baptist Corners, a general store that also has the only commercial gas pump in town. She has a current application with the ZBA to add a deli and apartment to her store and has plans to sell it in the near future. When she responded to Brosius’ inquiry, she shared her support for passing both the Town Plan and LUR amendments.

“If we lose Sheehan House (to a different developer), the character will go away,” she said. Spear referenced the decades of work Hinsdale has done to conserve farmland surrounding the East village area. She also said she does not stand to profit from expanding the boundaries or increasing density, saying she will “have no financial gain, whether you think I do or not…I’m going to get rich at heart.”

Support for the amendments also came from Planning Commission Chair Peter Joslin, who has been working on shepherding these amendments through a lengthy process, including several earlier public meetings throughout the past year. He said on Friday, “I don’t see how you could encourage development in the village when there’s a five-acre requirement,” noting that such a large acreage requirement for residential zoning prohibits most development—the notion of desired development in the area being the impetus for the amendments in the first place.

Krasnow said that the Selectboard’s role is to advance these questions to a vote. “The question of how a town should develop…should not be made by the five Selectboard members who are currently in the position of making decisions…to that point, I think it’s important for the town to decide how it wants to develop in the future.” Faulkner agreed. “We’re just the middleman, putting it to the voter,” he said.

The proposed articles—the three LUR amendments and the Town Plan amendment—were approved by the Selectboard to be warned for a vote on Town Meeting Day.