By Peter Joslin
Now that the dust has settled, the yard signs are gone, and Charlotters have exercised their democratic right and responsibility, it’s an appropriate time to take a step back and take stock of the process and results of Articles 6,7,8 and 9 on Town Meeting Day. Articles 6 and 7 proposed to expand the East Charlotte Village Commercial District and reduce the density requirement to foster growth. These articles raised important questions about growth and development in Charlotte.
How much growth, if any? Commercial and/or residential? Should the village and/or commercial boundaries be expanded? Should density requirements change? Should the East Village and West Village be treated the same way? What about the cost of housing in Charlotte—does it matter? Are the goals regarding development outlined in the Town Plan still relevant today?
From my perspective—beyond my disappointment that articles 6 and 7 were voted down—bringing these important questions to the fore is the silver lining to what transpired. What’s before us now is whether these issues will go the way of winter or spark on-going, sustained public interest and involvement in answering these questions that are critical to the future of our town. This, in my opinion, is the most important take-away.
In 2018, the Planning Commission began working on extensive changes to the Land Use Regulations. The PC began this process by reviewing over 75 identified potential changes that were then prioritized, edited down to 22 proposed amendments, and finally formalized into three separate “buckets”: The East Charlotte Village Commercial District (Since it included a change to the boundary, which is part of the Town Plan, it required a separate hearing, hence, Articles 6 and 7.); Act 143 Accessory Farm Businesses (Article 8), and lastly, Technical Updates, Corrections and Policy Changes (Article 9).
In hindsight, this may have been too much to ask voters to consider at one time. For the overwhelming majority of Charlotters, the Town Plan and Land Use Regulations are not part of their regular vocabulary nor on their radar. This is not criticism, merely statement of fact. I offer myself as an example: prior to my time on the PC, I had very little understanding of the Town Plan and LURs. It wasn’t until 2004, when I was appointed to the PC, that my education of these important documents began.
Whereas the Town Plan looks at Charlotte at the 40,000-foot level and is broad and aspirational, the Land Use Regulations are on the ground, in the weeds, and complex in the minute detail. Due to this and how the process played out, it’s clear the PC will need to approach proposed amendments differently in the future: specific enough in content yet made clearer for the general public. The PC made two calculation errors regarding increased acreage and the potential “build-out” number of units. This caused some understandable confusion. Comments posted on Front Porch Forum and during public comment at meetings often centered on needing a defined build-out, asking the PC to illustrate what the village would look like.
This is not feasible since the land is privately held, and there is no town wastewater or water infrastructure in the East Village. Proposed development is at the discretion of land owners and developers, as it is and has been in every other area of Charlotte, excluding town-owned land in the West Village and Thompson’s Point. Development is contingent on many factors—first and foremost, availability of wastewater and water, and how much. These are practical constraints. Once identified, subdivision permits go through rigorous review by the Planning Commission and/or Zoning Board, depending on the type of application.
At the outset of this process three years ago, public participation was very modest and continued to be as the PC worked its way through the 22 amendments. The Planning Commission spent a great deal of time on the East Charlotte Village changes and Act 143, Accessory Farm Business. Participation during the PC’s required two public hearings was low. Public participation increased when the amendments came before the Selectboard. I see two important take-aways regarding the amendment process and public participation: the PC needs to improve outreach to encourage public participation, and the public needs to play a more active and sustained role earlier in the process of discussion of our town’s future. It is a two-way street.
Looking ahead there are a few facts to consider. The average price of a home in Charlotte is over $600,000. Since at least 2004, the overwhelming majority of development has been, and continues to be, in the rural district. The year my family moved to Charlotte, in 1993, student enrollment at CCS was 488. For the school year 2020-2021 it is 360. The 2010 U.S. census projected the population in Charlotte to be 3,861 by 2015; the current population is 3,754. Coupled with this is the fact that we are an aging demographic. The median age in 2010 was 44.8, in 2020, 47.3, and is projected to increase to 48.1 in 2025, higher than the state or Chittenden County. What do these numbers portend for the future without modifications to provide opportunity for young people of modest financial means to become part of the town fabric? And what does it mean for aging citizens who may want to downsize but still live in Charlotte?
In an effort to keep the interest and dialogue going, and build on what was learned, the Planning Commission will continue to review potential amendments to the Land Use Regulations. The intent is to foster greater participation and broaden the scope of the discussion regarding the future of our town.
Peter Joslin is Chair of Charlotte Planning Commission. This is his opinion and is not written on behalf of the Planning Commission.