Charlotte launches village master planning project

On Thursday, Jan. 11, town planner Larry Lewack was nearing the finish line of a day-long marathon of meetings with business owners about how they would like to see Charlotte’s two villages develop.

That night as the seventh meeting of the day began, Lewack was still going relatively strong and holding up his end of the meeting, but frisky was not an adjective that would have been applied to him. Lewack said he thought they had talked to about 50 people that day as part of a process of doing “a deep dive” into finding out what residents want to do with the east and west villages.

The evening meeting began with Lewack explaining that the effort, the village master planning project, was, at least in part, a result of articles that were defeated almost three years ago.

That year on Town Meeting Day, two of 10 articles on the Australian ballot were defeated that were intended to spur development in East Charlotte Village. If passed, those articles would have increased the size of the East Charlotte Village by around 4 acres and made changes to land-use regulations, like allowing septic lines to run under roads.

The village master planning project has been made possible by around $85,000 the town received. Lewack applied for and got around $13,000 in state funds. Working with the Chittenden Regional Planning Commission, the town got about $72,000 in federal funds.

The project is an attempt to find out what Charlotters of different ages and demographics care about and what they feel might be missing in the two villages. The process will continue with more opportunities for people to share what kinds of community activities and infrastructure they think is needed to foster the kind of development people want.

This village master planning project will build upon two previous studies, one that was done by consultants in East Charlotte over 10 years ago and another in West Charlotte about 20 years ago. Lewack said most of the ideas that came out of those studies didn’t go anywhere.

He said the conversations will not shy away from suggestions that turned contentious in the past, but the aim will be to keep the talk “future focused.” Already that day in previous meetings, Lewack said potentially controversial topics had been discussed like access to water systems; septic; transportation, particularly to town facilities and services; and — a topic that can be a flashpoint in Charlotte — sidewalks.

Jolene Kao, who has owned the Old Brick Store for about a half a year, said parking is a problem. She would like for it to be safer for people to walk to her store from the senior center, which she noted, “is only a couple of doors away.”

In fact, village “walkability” was mentioned several times during the meeting as a very desirable goal.

Katie Rose of Head Over Fields Farm said having a business in Charlotte is nice because the landscape is “a constant form of passive marketing.” In other words, when people drive through they tend to want to stop at farms like hers, but it’s not so nice because it’s hard to find employees with so few places for farm workers to live.

“Not having housing nearby for younger hourly workers is definitely a challenge that we see continuing,” Rose said.

Several people with farm stores talked about the challenges of having a business on Route 7. Someone was killed in a four-vehicle accident there this past summer. Those at the meeting would like to have more signs warning drivers that their business entrances were approaching.

Jane MacLean of Sweet Roots Farm, which is also on Route 7 where the old Charlotte Berry Farm was, talked about the difficulty of getting daycare, which greatly impacts her business day. She said it was a miracle she was able to get one of her children into the Charlotte Children’s Center, but she has to drive her other child 30 minutes to childcare. That translates into two hours or 50 miles of driving every workday.

Lewack talked about how many people travel through town, both on Route 7 and on Ferry Road. Mt. Philo is not only the first state park created in Vermont, it is the state’s busiest park. He said sometimes on nice days in the summer he sees at least 100 bicyclists travel by the town hall.

A question Lewack considers a lot is: “What would it mean to you if there was a little more reason for people to stop?”

The farm stores along Route 7 rarely have bikers stop. Most of them stick to Greenbush Road and Ferry Road.

“We’re not far from Burlington, which is a hub of a lot of people. We have lots of open space. We have lots of trails. We have lots of farms that have farm stands, and I feel like Charlotte could capitalize on that,” said Jessica Sanford of Adam’s Berry Farm.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) is extremely slow to make changes to a highway like Route 7, putting up the kinds of signs the group wants, warning of farm entrances with blinking lights. But, Lewack said, the agency is anxious to establish a park-and-ride facility in Charlotte. Lewack said he felt the field behind Stone’s Throw Pizza would be a good location for a park and ride.

“There are no park and rides north of Vergennes all the way up to South Burlington. So, they’re going to do it at some point in the next few years. If we have views about that, this is a good time to speak up about them,” Lewack said. “Having a park and ride may help to slow more people down and get them to stop here for a while.”

Everyone at the meeting seemed to agree with the state’s determination that Vermont is in a housing crisis and that something needs to be done to find more housing young families can afford.

Fixing the affordable housing need is a particularly tough nut to crack. As Lewack pointed out, Charlotte has both the highest incomes and the most expensive property in Chittenden County.

Most of those at the meeting also agreed that decreasing the 5-acre lot size minimum was a way to increase affordable housing.

The bulk of the upcoming planning commission meeting on Thursday, Jan. 25, will be devoted to talking about the village survey project. All of the town’s boards and commissions have been invited to this meeting to make sure they all know what is happening, Lewack said.

And there will be more meetings with residents. The next round will be visual preference surveys, meetings where residents will be shown images of different types of buildings and asked for their feedback on what they like and don’t like for the look of Charlotte’s villages.

As the process continues there will be several community outreach opportunities and the results of these will be posted on the project website.

“Your voice is crucial in understanding how the town should, and should not, allocate resources to meet its goals,” Lewack said.

There will be poster displays and flyers at the senior center, town hall, library, the East Charlotte General Store (formerly Spear’s Corner Store) and the Old Brick Store to give as many residents as possible opportunities to find out about the project and respond.

Lewack said, ultimately, the process should result in a rewrite of the town’s zoning bylaws to fix the significant disconnect between the concepts in the town plan and the land-use regulations.

The previous studies of the Charlotte West Village in 2002 and of the East Village in 2010 produced reports, but these reports were not followed with fixes to make the proposals possible.

Lewack said, “This time we’re coupling the visionary work with a fix and flowing directly to getting that adopted, so that people can actually start to come to the town with proposals to build stuff according to the new rules within a reasonable timeframe.”