Search for process to find Charlotte’s past and future continues

What’s your perception of development in Charlotte?

Typically, we see it—or the lack of it—driving around town, hiking or walking in our neighborhoods. Vast open spaces, farmland, beautiful vistas and woodlands abound. All is good.

Or is it? Do you recall or wonder what Charlotte looked like 25 years ago? What will our town look like 15 years hence?

Here’s a thought experiment: Go to your device of choice, navigate to Google maps and use the satellite view to pinpoint your location. For those who have lived here 15-20 years, does it look the same as you remember it?

Start to mosey around town, focusing on patterns of development. What do you see? In my neighborhood there were 13 homes in 1993. Today there are 21 and an additional 8 lots to be developed. Little has changed in the village districts.

In 2020, the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development partnered with the Congress for New Urbanism, Vermont’s 11 regional planning commissions the American Association of Retired Persons, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Vermont Association of Realtors to address the crisis the state and its towns and villages face regarding the lack of affordable housing. Their report is “Enabling Better Places: A Zoning Guide for Vermont Neighborhoods.”

In its introduction it states:

“Vermont’s statewide planning goal to ‘maintain the historic settlement pattern of compact village and urban centers separated by rural countryside’ provides a wonderful context for individual town and village comprehensive growth plans. Yet in many cases, the bylaws in many communities do not reflect either the statewide planning goal or the local village or town plan.

“In Vermont and in communities across the country, too many families cannot find homes they can afford. There is simply a dearth of affordable housing at a price-point that working-class residents such as teachers and firefighters, let alone families struggling to survive on minimum wage, can afford.”

This is certainly true in Charlotte. This report goes on to identify the disconnect between policy and need:

“Production of housing units for rental and ownership at prices that match incomes must keep up with demand in order to achieve affordability, and that means lowering the cost of production and increasing the variety of housing types being built. However, the problem is more complicated than simple economic failure of supply not meeting demand. Housing policies at both the state and local levels unjustifiably restrict housing access and unnecessarily limit choice of alternative housing options. In Vermont, the resulting impact to the cost and availability of housing matters, not only for individual families, but for the state economy as well: businesses struggle to hire and retain qualified workers, limiting business development, expansion and retention.”

The report also outlines the reduction in family size and the lack of appropriately sized housing to meet this change:

“Vermont villages and towns need a wider range of housing types to meet a changing population. While total population has seen little growth in the past decade, household size is also decreasing. Single person households now make up a quarter of all Vermont households, but one-bedroom homes are rare in Vermont. While household sizes are shrinking, homes are not. The state’s housing stock is often larger than needed for the growing number of small households and is old, which means municipalities need to make it easier to 1) modify existing larger homes, and 2) build more smaller and varied homes to meet the growing needs of 21st century families and individuals.”

Finally, it draws the correlation between changes in housing needs and how they are impacted by current zoning and subdivision regulations:

“This mismatch between housing needs and housing stock is exacerbated by bylaws that can inadvertently drive up development costs. Zoning and subdivision regulations in towns and villages across Vermont often require large setbacks from the road, low densities, separations of use, limited housing options, excessive parking requirements, overly wide streets, and occasionally ill-considered design standards. Such provisions can restrict opportunities for housing, increase costs for individuals and communities, perpetuate sprawling, auto-oriented development, and negatively affect Vermont’s villages, farms, forests and natural resources.”

In the March 5 edition of VT Digger, the Champlain Housing Trust announced its plan to build 100 mixed-income homes in Hinesburg on about 46 acres of donated land. The development will be a mix of permanently affordable and market-value homes. Playgrounds, walking trails and sledding hills are also planned for the site.

Michael Monte of the Champlain Housing Trust said, “This will be a model project that I hope will inspire other communities across our region and state to prioritize affordable housing development when Vermonters’ need is so great.”

This development will be in Hinesburg’s village district. A development of this size would be out of scale in Charlotte. But what about something smaller—20 modest homes, condos or apartments in the east and west villages?

Future development was a topic of discussion at the Charlotte Planning Commission’s March 3 and 17 meetings. Planning commissioners Kyra Miller and Bob Bloch have begun to research Community Heart and Soul, a national non-profit, that, as stated on their website, “Is a resident-driven process that engages the entire population of a town in identifying what they love most about their community, what future they want for it and how to achieve it.”

Over the past several years, many of the proposed development projects large and small have been contentious, resulting in appealed decisions and legal disputes regarding the nuances of procedural issues of governing bodies. We need to build consensus toward our future goals. This is Community Heart and Soul’s wheelhouse—engaging all members of the community toward a collective future.

Circling back to Google’s satellite image of Charlotte I think about where and when the infill in the rural district slows down and gives way to deliberate and planned modest growth in the villages.

When and how do we get there? Community Heart and Soul may just be the spark to engage our future.

Peter Joslin is the former chair of the Charlotte Planning Commission.