Opinion – Charlotte: Where do we go from here?

Welcome, readers, to this new column focusing on the future of Charlotte, the seeds of which were precipitated by my tenure on the Planning Commission, recent significant changes as to how Charlotte regulates development and manages planning, and the fact that development has been a significant topic of discussion over the past few years. This was largely brought to the fore by the Planning Commission’s Articles 6 and 7 last year and further highlighted by neighbors’ appeal of the proposed Health Center in the West Village, residents’ concern regarding the Vermont Commons School development on Spear Street, and conflicting opinions concerning the scale and location of the O’Donnell/Donovan major subdivision application on Lake Road. Most recently, after the terrible loss of Junior Lewis’s garage and equipment, the Selectboard is in the midst of formulating plans for a Town garage. Add to the mix an ongoing study of the possibility of a community recreation center and the question is: How do we, as a town, move forward?

It is my opinion that Charlotte is at a crossroads. Competing opinions about development, how much and where, are underscored by these recent developments. Answering these questions requires significant community involvement, with focus and direction from the Planning Commission. The Selectboard, although not in the business of overseeing subdivision, also must play a substantial role in supporting the Planning Commission and providing input about our town’s future.

Looking back, beginning in the summer months of 2021 and continuing into the fall, the Selectboard held a number of public meetings to discuss the pros and cons of changing the current Planning Commission/Zoning Board of Appeals model to a Planning Commission/ Development Review Board. After close to six months of substantial and enthusiastic discussion by the Selectboard, residents, ZBA members, Planning Commissioners, the Town Planner and expertise from Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, on October 25, 2021, the Selectboard, by a 4-1 vote (ayes: Jim Faulkner, Lewis Mudge, Louise McCarren, Matt Krasnow; nay: Frank Tenney), approved the formation of a Development Review Board.

This substantive change delegates all development review functions, including conditional use permits, site plans, variances, and appeals of zoning administrator decisions to the DRB. The Planning Commission will now focus solely on updates to the Town Plan, Land Use Regulations (which the DRB applies to all development) and, most importantly, will plot a course for Charlotte’s future relative to growth.

Soon after the approval of the DRB, the Selectboard began interviews for board members and also one vacancy on the Planning Commission. After interviews and discussion, the Selectboard appointed the following to the newly formed DRB: Lane Morrison, Charles Russell, Christina Asquith, Gerald Bouchard and J.D. Herlihy. Robert Bloch was appointed to the Planning Commission. The DRB and modified role of the Planning Commission went into effect December 16, 2021. At its first meeting, DRB members elected Lane Morrison chair and Charles Russell vice-chair. The Planning Commission elected Charlie Pugh chair and Gerald Bouchard vice-chair. Gerald serves on both the DRB and Planning Commission to promote continuity and communications between the two.

The DRB’s February schedule filled quickly on consecutive Wednesdays for new members’ orientation, review of procedures, and catching up on a backlog of sketch plan reviews, conditional use permits and variances.

On the Planning Commission front, Larry Lewack, Town Planner, created a spreadsheet of potential amendments to the Land Use Regulations and an accompanying, aggressive schedule for reviewing these through December 2022. This schedule includes potential joint meetings with the DRB and Selectboard and is designed to complete required public hearings on proposed amendments to the LUR’s by the Planning Commission and Selectboard in order to have them on the ballot for November 8, 2022, Election Day.

The potential amendments are broken down into four buckets: legislatively-mandated changes, technical updates, a.k.a., the “oops list,” amended definitions, and policy changes. Mandated changes are just that: required changes to be compliant with state statutes. Technical updates and definitions are, as the name implies, technical in nature and fairly rote, similar to Articles 8 and 9 voted on at last year’s Town Meeting. Potential policy changes are broken down into three sections: innovations, streamlining the review process, and increasing potential housing and commercial density in the village centers.

Which of these policy changes to pursue and prioritize will be decided by the Planning Commission and would be the most substantive amendments that may be put before the voters on Election Day. Changes that would promote increased density in the village districts and commercial village districts would certainly be the most controversial and would shine a light on the “elephant in the room,” the fact that the overwhelming majority of development has, and continues to occur, in the rural districts, contrary to what the Town Plan stipulates.

Change is afoot in Charlotte—stay tuned.