Planning Commission debates pros and cons of Development Review Board

Members get into the weeds on what a new board would mean

Since spring, municipal boards, including both the Selectboard and Zoning Board, have debated about forming a Development Review Board for the town.

The debate carried over to the Planning Commission’s regular meeting on Sept. 16.

Commission Vice-Chairman Charlie Pughe, who led the meeting in place of absent Chairman Peter Joslin, led a conversation that discussed the potential pros and cons of having a formal board for Charlotte.

“The last time we talked about this, we had a large difference of opinions,” Pughe said. “It didn’t seem like there was any real large consensus. The latest ask from the Selectboard is that we try to list the pros and cons of a Development Review Board. If we can’t reach an agreement, at least we can develop a good list.”

Commission member Kyra Wegman questioned the idea of the town forming a Development Review Board in the first place.

“The argument that keeps resonating with me is that, in a theoretical sense, I understand the need to separate a judicial and legislative party,” Wegman said. “But I am not clear on what problems we are solving if we form a Development Review Board. Who will enforce the town plan for the Development Review Board? That’s not clear to me and it’s super confusing on how that will work.”

Pughe told Wegman that the Planning Commission would be the ones to enforce the town plan and regulations for the Development Review Board.

“Any decision by the Development Review Board can be appealed to the court,” Pughe said. “And the court would say whether or not we are following the rules.”

Wegman disagreed.

“That makes it the citizens’ job financially and morally to be policing a body that is an upside-down pyramid and inefficient,” Wegman said. “If efficiency is the goal by forming this board, I’m not sure what problem that solves.”

“But the situation is true regardless of whether we move to this model or stay with the current structure we have,” Pughe said. “It’s the rules of the game, as it is defined in the state statutes. We have no control over that.”

Pughe said that the town would have to be careful about who they pick to serve for any Development Review Board.

“A potential candidate might be asked by the town about what projects they would not approve,” Pughe said. “The candidate says something about the projects they may not vote for. The town goes ‘thank you very much’ and goes on to the next person. What they are looking for is someone who will rubber-stamp development.”

In response, Wegman said she did not see how a Development Review Board would be beneficial for the town.

“Mike Dunbar is routinely sort of flouting the rules whenever he wants to,” Wegman said. “There is no recourse to make him do anything because he would rather pay a fine than work with the town. We are potentially exposing ourselves to more of that. It seems to be a great way for citizens to lose the ability to control what happens in their town.”

Two days before the Planning Commission’s meeting, the town sent a notice to Backyard Bistro Gemini Properties, LLC owners Dunbar and Debra Kassabian saying that the Charlotte Crossings’ Backyard Bistro violated the town’s Land Use Regulations.

At the meeting, Wegman said that “it sounds a little bit unsettling that we are here to serve the applicants.”

We are here to serve the town,” Wegman said. “Applicants are here to make money and not necessarily serve the town. While I realize that we need a robust economy and we need money coming in, if that becomes our only goal then we are going to lose the character of this town.”

Commission member Kelly Devine disagreed and said that not everyone coming before the town’s zoning commissions is looking to make money.

“People are coming [to the zoning commissions] because they are looking for an extra bedroom in their home or because they want to build a garage,” Devine said. “These are all homeowners in our town and many of them worked hard to have homes for their whole life. This is an old farming town. This is not a town where people come if they want to make a lot of money in real estate development. I guarantee that.”

Commission member Bill Stuono disagreed, stating, while members of the Selectboard believe that forming a Development Review Board could be done without voter approval, he disagreed with the idea of forming a board without voter input.

He also said that until the town made some strides towards improving water and sewer capacity, not much would change in regard to development in town.