Peter Joslin, Former Chair of the Charlotte Planning Commission

Village districts won’t develop without water and wastewater systems

“Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past and present are certain to miss the future” — John F. Kennedy

There was a time when Richmond did not have a water and wastewater district. Kendall Chamberlin remembers. He has been Richmond’s water quality superintendent since 1985.

As he describes it, Richmond did not have enough water in the village district and there was no cohesive system. A few reservoirs ran dry.

So, what did Richmond do? The town voted to develop a water district and hired an engineering firm tasked with performing the necessary hydrology studies to find water. They investigated three sites and found the mother lode on a farm near the old round church. Chamberlin says the well has unlimited supply.

According to Chamberlin, an agreement was reached between the town and the farmer to access the water. A bond vote was approved and the town secured state and federal grants that covered 90 percent of the project. Thus began Richmond’s water system. The year was 1969. At some point thereafter, the town assumed ownership of the land. In 1970, Richmond constructed its wastewater treatment facility.

Chamberlin said since 1985 there have been “four big pushes” to expand the water and wastewater systems beyond the current Village District, and all four attempts were voted down, with one exception. The last time, the voters approved to extend the water (and wastewater) only as far as the Mobil gas station on Route 2 near Interstate 89.

One of the fears of implementing public water and wastewater systems in small towns is that development will run rampant. This has not been the case in Richmond. Without some level of municipal water and wastewater systems in small towns, growth in Village Districts will be, at best, extremely limited. There is no water system in either Charlotte’s East or West Village. There is a small wastewater system in the West Village that has additional capacity.

On April 7th, Seven Days ran a story titled: “Obstruction Zone: How Vermont’s Land-Use Regulations Impede New Development-and Complicate the State’s Housing Crisis.” The article details a number of development projects in the state, their success or failure, legal disputes, restrictions in land use regulations and the pros and cons of Act 250 on larger projects (subdivision of 10 lots or more in a 5-year period).

In this article, Nancy Owens, co-president of Evernorth, a non-profit developer, stated the reason for the state’s chronic housing shortage is “Vermont’s complicated regulatory model for new development, which is made more unpredictable by the ungovernable human resistance to change.”

Additionally, she says “In the end, the fate of a proposed housing project often depends less on a town’s zoning codes than on the community’s willingness to accept what might be allowed. ‘What it often boils down to is this very broad idea of compatibility with the neighborhood.’” This will sound familiar to many Charlotters.

The state is encouraging local municipalities to update their land use regulations to promote the statewide planning goal of fostering development in village centers to prevent sprawl in the rural areas. This year, the state has awarded $500,000 in grants to assist 41 municipalities update zoning regulations. More grants are planned for 2023.

Richmond was a recipient of such a grant. As a result, Ravi Venkataraman, Richmond Town Planner, and the Richmond Planning Commission have been focused on growth in the Village Districts. Their guide has been “Enabling Better Places: A Zoning Guide for Vermont Neighborhoods.” This guide, referenced extensively in my last column, states in its introduction:

“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 and 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.”

The goal of Richmond’s grant work is to implement changes to their zoning regulations to increase density in the Village District to meet the state standards for neighborhoods. This “gentle infill,” as described by Venkataraman, would include duplexes and multi-family units. These updates would also include compatibility standards to maintain the character of the area. Once these updated regulations are completed, they will be put before the town for comment. After public comment, the Planning Commission may make modifications before submitting to the Selectboard for approval.

Richmond was astute in realizing that water and wastewater were central to the future of the Village and now they are focused on amending zoning regulations to promote development.

Back in the West Village of Charlotte, change is afoot. In March 2022, Charlotte Village Partners purchased the LeBoeuf property on Ferry Road (54 acres). The house close to the street (that was to be the location of the Health Center), as well as the out-buildings, are now being renovated and brought back to life. The field behind the house, which runs south and east, is being cleared of scrub and the drainage reworked. Mike Dunbar, of Charlotte Village Partners, and owner of Charlotte Crossings said:

“We began immediately cleaning out the existing structures and maintaining the property to put the land back into working order. In the next several months, we will renovate all three structures, returning the house and garages to usable and desirable conditions…our plans for this property are aligned with the town’s overall vision. We believe the revival of the property will significantly benefit Ferry Road’s general appearance within the town’s village center.”

This is a fine first step toward revitalizing the West Village, but without significant changes to the Land Use Regulations and municipal water and wastewater systems, little to no new development will occur in Charlotte’s Village Districts.

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