Where do we go from here — One year later

This column first appeared in The Charlotte News one year ago. The focus has been on development in town, where it is and is not occurring, and the lack of housing stock for moderate income buyers. Looking back, little has changed on this front with the exception of town approval of amendments to accessory dwelling units. Change takes time in small towns.

Many years ago, with the intent to prevent sprawl, the town-initiated changes to the land use regulations in concert with the town plan to protect the rural areas and focus most growth in the east and west villages. Has it been successful? It depends, I suppose, on what you think “sprawl” looks like and what constitutes development. One moving here from an urban environment might laugh at the thought that sprawl is occurring in Charlotte. I get it.

Perhaps sprawl is like bankruptcy as Hemingway described it: “two ways … gradually and then suddenly.” Are we going to wake up one morning in the future and find much of the farmland and rural landscape gone and the east and west villages looking the same?

There is a housing crisis nationally, statewide and right here in Charlotte. A recent article in Seven Days, “Expensive Housing is Limiting Who gets to Live Where in Vermont — and Clouds the State’s Future,” is their final segment of “Locked Out, Vermont’s Housing Crisis” series. This article, as with prior pieces, focused on the housing crisis in Vermont, primarily for lower to middle income buyers.

The article references Chuck Lacey, a longtime resident of Jericho, since 1988, who wanted to add an apartment to his duplex for his mother, but zoning regulations required him to build a separate house. To understand how this came to be, he researched the town’s history of land-use regulations. According to Seven Days’ reporter Derek Brouwer, this research revealed the town “drafted and adopted local zoning rules that outlawed mobile home communities and mandated large lot sizes that curtailed starter homes. Fewer-and bigger homes were built, commercial development was strictly controlled, property values rose, and resident incomes skewed higher.”

Brouwer also said, “Selectboard chair Catherine McMains, who has lived there for 31 years, describes her neighbors as artists, retirees and liberals — not “wealthy folks,” like those who live in Charlotte, the richest town in Chittenden County.” Ouch, sound familiar?

We are into the first month of the new year, a good time to consider where we go from here. We have a lot going on in our small town: construction of a new town garage; onboarding a fire and rescue department into town governance (including the escalating costs to support it and staffing challenges); ongoing concern about speeding on the town’s major roads; and a lack of affordable and moderate housing. These challenges are not unique to Charlotte. Hinesburg has postponed its attempt to create an ambulance service and voters have mandated a reduction in the police budget. With significant growth expected over the next decade, Hinesburg has hired a consultant to review its public safety strategy. The town has also contemplated a merger with a neighboring town’s police department.

Kyra Miller and Bob Bloch, Charlotte planning commissioners, have proposed partnering with Community Heart and Soul to plan for all aspects of Charlotte’s future. Patricia Sears, community coach for Community Heart and Soul said, “Community Heart and Soul supports the ‘smart growth’ approach to community planning, reminding communities they have the power ‘to create livable places, healthy people and shared prosperity by working with elected officials at all levels, real estate developers, chambers of commerce, transportation … and residents to improve everyday life for people.”

The Vermont Institute for Government said, “Planning is the process of designing a community’s future.”

And, from the Vermont Planning Information website: “In its most basic form, planning is the art of understanding how things are in our communities today, how we’d like things to be tomorrow, and then figuring out how to get there.”

But the planning commission can’t do this alone, they need help and support from the selectboard and most importantly, from you. Community participation and creative ideas are critical for success.

Community Heart and Soul can help us create a roadmap to the future.

Let’s resolve to engage Community Heart and Soul in assisting us to map out our future by answering these, and other critical questions:

  • How much growth do we want over the next 10 years?
  • Where and what kind of growth: continue in the rural areas or redirect the focus to the villages?
  • What is the impact of rural development on farming and its future?
  • Do we want a more mixed community in which folks of various income levels and ages can become part of the Town fabric?
  • How (or should) we address our aging population?
  • Should the town consider providing some level of wastewater and water in the village districts?
  • Should the town investigate consolidating resources such as fire and rescue and police with other towns?

The recently approved O’Donnell/Donovan three-lot minor subdivision at 125 Lake Road may turn out to be an example of the law of unintended consequences. Originally proposed as a tightly clustered nine-lot major planned residential development with open space, it was preliminarily approved by the planning commission in December 2021. The final approved three-lot minor subdivision by the development review board divided 124 acres into 44.54 acres, 16.79 acres and 62.97 acres.

Based on current land-use regulations, all three of these parcels have the potential for further subdivision. Apparently, there is a possibility that one lot may be conserved in the future. However, what was approved by the development review board does not conserve or designate any of the 124 acres as open space.