By Nancy Richardson, Contributor

At its May 6 meeting, Planning Commission members were treated to a seminar on community outreach by Ravi Venkataraman, Richmond town planner. Richmond and Charlotte share similarities and differences.  With populations of about 4,000, they are nearly the same size.  Both towns have also struggled with achieving consensus on land use regulations.

In 2011 a unified development ordinance was defeated in Richmond.  The Town Plan was revised and accepted in 2018.  However, the land use regulations do not reflect state requirements or the revised Town Plan. Richmond has since been working to involve the community in the design of new land use regulations.  Residents have been asked, “How would you envision a community that maintains its current characteristics, but responds to future needs?”

Richmond’s process of planning and design began in earnest just as the pandemic hit.  It was soon slowed by the need for Zoom meetings to disseminate information.  Outreach gained momentum in October 2020. Venkataraman outlined ongoing efforts to engage the public that include focused meetings on town goals and needs.  There have been envisioning discussions of how the town would look in different districts if changes are made in zoning regulations.  In addition to notices in newspapers and on Front Porch Forum, key people have been contacted in different districts to ensure participation. Detailed information was disseminated prior to the sessions.  Deliberate efforts during these meetings were made to keep discussions tightly focused and anchored in specific information.

Richmond planners are taking information from the public sessions and surveys to formulate zoning amendments that align with state regulations and Smart Growth guidelines.  These drafts will be presented to the public in June for further feedback.

Comments from Charlotte planning commissioners focused on technical details concerning the staffing of  Richmond’s planning department, the presence of water and sewer services, and the nature of incremental planning. Mike Russell then commented that Richmond residents appear to agree that sustaining the town requires that growth and development occur. Russell is not sure that this sentiment is held by most Charlotters.  Ravi Venkataraman responded that in housing and other development activities, support varies across districts. Some favor multi-housing projects; others like smaller duplex structures. Moving deliberately and implementing incrementally, with time for transitioning, are strategically important.

The discussion then moved to the research being done on the Design Review Board (DRB) model for facilitating the planning, zoning, and review in Charlotte.  Selectboard member Jim Faulkner, who heads a three-member committee charged with studying the DRB approach, reported that there will be a public presentation of the committee’s findings during the last week in June.  He said a DRB may or may not make sense for Charlotte, but the matter deserves consideration. Jim Donovan offered that the matter had been studied by the town twenty years ago and was rejected.  Mike Russell noted that things have changed in twenty years.  Permitting and regulation were not as important then as they are now.

According to Russell, if we were designing a system today, why would we put in place a model that has two bodies involved in both permitting and regulation? The planning commission is spending half of its time on zoning issues. The current model makes no sense and contributes to the problems we have seen in the past few years. Bill Stuono countered that the DRB model would disconnect planning and zoning from the design review process. These and other questions will be addressed in a public meeting to be held during the last week of June with representatives from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

On a final topic, Mike Russell reviewed the work of the Community Partners organization that was formed to examine Charlotte residents needs for planning and services during the pandemic. Russell would like to see participation grow to facilitate the type of community conversation and outreach that is taking place in Richmond.  A series of public meetings is scheduled to commence on different topics and the next meeting, on May 18 will focus on resident perceptions of the availability of basic services in Charlotte.  Information on the meetings is available through the Charlotte Library website.