Commentary: Charlotte Development Review Board — two years in

In November 2021, the selectboard approved the formation of a development review board. This change delegated all development applications, conditional-use permits, site plans, variances and decisions to that board. The planning commission’s sole focus became updates to the town plan, land-use regulations and, most importantly, plotting a course for Charlotte’s future.

Now two years in, how are things going? Was this a good decision? Are we seeing the benefits expected? Any downsides? To answer these questions, I spoke to members of the development review board, selectboard, planning commission and conservation commission.

Charles Russel and J.D. Herlihy are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the development review board. Russel and Herlihy see the formation of the development review board as a success.

As a new board, there have been some growing pains; most members were not familiar with the land-use regulations and applying them to applications. Russell and Herlihy see the board’s role as an organic process, continuing to learn and interact with the planning commission and conservation commission in an effort to ensure that applicants know what to expect and where to go for information, and issuing well-founded decisions. Russel and Herlihy recognize the importance of separating opinion from policy in issuing sound decisions.

Charlie Pughe, chair of the planning commission, also thinks the formation of the development review board was a positive step. The planning commission became unencumbered from permitting and development applications. He said there have been some differences of opinion as to how the development review board has interpreted the land-use regulations compared to past history of the planning commission.

Pughe said the planning commission is “taking a more holistic approach” to updating the land-use regulations and town plan. He said focusing on the big picture, reviewing sections of the land-use regulations rather than discreet pieces, will produce more coherent regulations which are consistent with the town plan. Pughe said the current focus is updates to the land-use regulations specific to Thompson’s Point, in large part due to an applicant’s recent appeal of a development review board decision. He sees major planning beginning next year as review of village development, in conjunction with Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, begins near the end of 2023.

The previously mentioned Thompson’s Point decision and appeal illustrates the complexity of some applications and how various boards’ and committees’ involvement may affect the outcome.

In this decision, the development review board denied an application to tear down and rebuild a camp on Thompson’s Point. The applicant appealed to environmental court and the selectboard sided with the applicant, not the development review board. This shined a light on the appeal process and to what degree the selectboard, development review board and conservation commission may be involved in the mediation of an appeal. Prior to the formation of the development review board, the planning commission was a party to appeals and/or the mediation process. For this current appeal, there was no involvement by the development review board or conservation commission. Russel and Herlihy described the process as a “black box.” There was no insight about how the selectboard reached its decision. They said there is an opportunity and need for process improvement; that it be clear and include development review board involvement.

I spoke to Jim Faulkner, chair of the selectboard, about this and he was limited, legally, in what he could discuss, but he certainly felt there was a process problem: a need for participation by the development review board, and, as he said, “a need for a solid policy going forward.” He intends to have this on the selectboard agenda sometime in mid-to-late January.

I asked Faulkner his opinion of the development review board (he was one of four selectboard members who voted in favor) and he said, “It has been a success and has taken the burden of permitting off the planning commission so they can focus on future planning.” To stay abreast of important planning and development issues, as well as future planning, Faulkner plans to hold quarterly meetings with the selectboard, development review board and planning commission to foster improved communication. This is especially critical as the town begins the two-year process with Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission on development in the village districts.

Russel and Herlihy see the development review board’s relationship with the planning commission, conservation commission and selectboard as congenial and see communication improving since its formation. Faulkner, Pughe and Maggie Citarella, chair of the conservation commission, echoed this point. It was clear that this is vital to all involved and the town at large. More collaboration between boards and commissions, less functioning as independent silos.

But when it comes to issuing decisions, the simple fact is that interpreting and applying the land-use regulations and town plan to an application is not always clear cut. Each board and commission has specific responsibilities, but ultimately, the development review board authors the decision.

Citarella has been working with staff and the development review board to provide timely, detailed information on significant applications using the “Protocol for Assessment of Impacts of Proposed Development on Significant Wildlife Habitat in Charlotte, Vermont.” Citarella said the conservation commission has been meeting with the development review board and that Claudia Mucklow is the commission’s liaison to the board.

Lane Morrison, who was the first chair of the development review board, agrees that the formation of the board has been a success. He said that board members have a challenging job. “Neighbors’ emotions can run high,” and added, “This makes letting the process work very challenging.”

My take-away from talking with Faulkner, Russel, Herlihy, Pughe, Morrison and Citarella is the board and commissions have gone through a period of adjustment resulting in positive benefits moving forward. The creation of the development review board was a kind of divorce; the separation of the judicial and legislative roles previously under the auspices of the planning commission. What I heard from all parties is their continued commitment to improve and clarify the land-use regulations, town plan, permitting processes and focus on their respective roles for Charlotte and its residents.

(Peter Joslin is a former chair of the planning commission and a member of The Charlotte News board of directors. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the board.)