Charlotte residents remain split over sidewalks

The shoulders of Ferry Road are patched with gravel and uneven pavement. Parked cars overtake sections on either side. For pedestrians, though, those obstructed shoulders are the only option for navigating Charlotte’s West Village.

“You basically have to take your life into your hands and walk along the very narrow or nonexistent shoulder,” said Larry Lewack, Charlotte’s town planner.

Charlotte has debated the addition of sidewalks in its West Village for more than a decade. The quarter-mile between Greenbush Road and state Route 7 contains Charlotte Town Hall, a U.S. post office, the Charlotte Library, the Old Brick Store, the Charlotte Children’s Center and the Charlotte Senior Center.

Now, the sidewalk topic is likely to resurface with two state and regional grants worth more than $85,000 allocated last year for Charlotte infrastructure improvements. The funds for the town’s Village Master Planning Project will determine land-use regulations and promote “smart growth” development, under the guidance of community input.

Some longtime residents suggest that sidewalks would make the trip to reach Ferry Road accommodations safer, more convenient and more environmentally friendly than driving.

Photo by Deirdre Holmes. 
As a member of the Vermont Walking College, Deirdre Holmes did a project to determine how difficult it is to use a walker on Ferry Road. She found cars didn’t stop for her with the walker at the crosswalk between the library and the children’s center.
Photo by Deirdre Holmes
As a member of the Vermont Walking College, Deirdre Holmes did a project to determine how difficult it is to use a walker on Ferry Road. She found cars didn’t stop for her with the walker at the crosswalk between the library and the children’s center.

On the other side, naysayers argue that sidewalks aren’t necessary or worth the cost. Even with the rough conditions, they point out, plenty of people walk to and from community buildings anyway.

Some town residents see sidewalks as a sign of change in the town’s character, said Jenny Cole, who grew up on Greenbush Road and served on the selectboard from 2002 to 2011.

“They see our town as a rural town, and they don’t want to be moving towards something that would be more suburban or, you know, more like developed area,” she said.

Cole, the Charlotte Public Library’s interlibrary loan librarian, said she sees the need for sidewalks to improve safety. “I think there are lots of small towns that have put in sidewalks and they don’t really change. I don’t think they have to change the feel of the town.”

Lorna Bates, who has lived in Charlotte with her husband for 35 years, visits the senior center twice a week to play bridge. Bates sometimes walks from the senior center to the library.

“That’s difficult to do when there’s snow on the ground and there are puddles,” she said. “It’s unpleasant.”

The senior center lists 600 people in its database who visit for meals, classes and presentations, and participation is increasing, according to Lane Morrison, the center’s board chair. Morrison has lived in Charlotte since 1972 and said it would be easier and safer for visitors if walkways were in place. Children from the day care center stroll past the volunteer fire and rescue building to participate in senior center activities, which is one of his foremost concerns.

Back in 2012, a group of locals campaigned heavily for the construction of sidewalks in the West Village and reached success with a 141 to 124 vote in favor of the measure on the town meeting ballot that year. Later that same year, sidewalk opponents circulated a petition to reconsider the vote, leading to a reversal.

No progress on building sidewalks has been made since, though the town has studied and continued to discuss possible plans. Meanwhile, anti-sidewalk sentiment remains.

Robert Mack voted against the sidewalk proposal in 2012 and still doubts that the level of need justifies the construction of sidewalks. His family has lived in Charlotte since 1919, and Mack served on the selectboard for 21 years.

“I don’t want change anywhere in Charlotte,” Mack said. “I like it just the way it is.”

Charlotte has “plenty of places” for walking and jogging other than Ferry Road, he argued. Mack and other sidewalk opponents also say the construction would only cater to a small number of residents who consistently walk along Ferry Road. Proponents, though, are confident that foot traffic would increase if safe options were available.

The 2012 sidewalk proposal would have cost $77,000.

“I would rather use the money for other items,” said Barry Finette, a pediatrician, scientist and entrepreneur who has lived in Charlotte for 28 years.

Lewis Mudge, a Charlotte selectboard member, said the sidewalk proposal would require a surplus in town funds that is unlikely in the near future.

“The selectboard’s been elected to recognize that, yes, you need a healthy amount of debt to run your town, but you share a responsibility to do this responsibly,” he said.

The real issue, said residents on both sides of the sidewalks, is the speed of drivers on Ferry and Greenbush roads.

“People use those roads like they’re basically autobahns,” said Mudge, who lives on Greenbush Road with three young children and neighbors nearby with kids. “It’s certainly a major concern for us.”

Between 2021 and 2022, Vermont Agency of Transportation data showed an 18 percent increase in traffic from the Charlotte-Essex Ferry landing on Lake Champlain to Greenbush Road.

The town should “really start looking into more robust speed mitigation measures that’ll physically slow people down,” Mudge said.

Deirdre Holmes, an 18-year Charlotte resident, joined the Vermont Walking College in 2023. The educational program teaches its fellows to advocate for “safe, equitable, accessible and enjoyable places to walk and move” in their communities. For her project, Holmes used a walker to represent the experience of someone with restricted mobility and found navigating the shoulders and crossing the road extremely difficult.

Holmes stepped with the walker into the Ferry Road crosswalk, which connects the library and children’s center. “Cars just sped right by” without stopping, she said.

Holmes is a member of the Charlotte Energy Committee, which advocates carbon-free means of transportation to reduce Charlotte’s environmental impact. Able-bodied people relying on vehicles to travel walkable distances is “not the best pattern,” she said.

Lewack agreed, saying he has seen drivers run multiple errands and get back in their cars just to drive across Ferry Road.

“I mean, that’s just silly,” he said. Sidewalks would encourage them to park and walk, he reasoned.

Lewack said previous designs for poured concrete, curbed paths have bothered some residents. In 2015, the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission proposed some alternatives: widening the shoulders on Ferry Road, making an informal gravel path or adding raised surfaces to enforce slow turns at intersections.

“Maybe we move away from the word ‘sidewalk,’” Holmes said, “if that particular word has connotations of a particular design and material, which people don’t feel like fits a small village.”

(The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.)