As much as things change … A look at the origin of land-use planning in Charlotte

“Mrs. Field commented that there appeared to be a certain amount of confusion among the townspeople regarding just what the planning commission was up to.” — Charlotte Planning Commission minutes, June 11, 1968

Fifty-five years ago, Charlotte’s newly formed planning commission began the thoughtful work that over the next few decades helped stem the rapid growth that started in Chittenden County in the early 1960s.

By the end of its first year, the commission had created a town plan that was succinct, forward-thinking and surprisingly relevant today. I discovered the original town plan while looking for old regulations in the planning & zoning office at town hall. In a binder labeled “Zoning Regs 1966-1987” was an original copy of the first Comprehensive Town Plan from March 1969 that was mailed out to:


This folded-up 17×22-inch document included eight pages of text on one side and a colored map on the other showing what might be possible and desirable for the future of the town. This mailing was in preparation for the public hearing that the year-old planning commission held that year.

Curious about how this amazing document came to be, I went through the planning commission meeting minutes from May 1968 until the plan’s approval by the selectboard the following spring to find out exactly what they had been up to. Suffice it to say there was a lot going on.

From the planning commission minutes:

  • Atomic power plant
    “In reply to a letter sent by Tom Schermerhorn to some 40 townspeople asking for comments on planning, there appeared to be certain reservations regarding the proposed atomic power plant both from an aesthetic and a pollution point of view. Those replying also emphasized the need for a general master plan.

“The committee then turned to the matter of the proposed atomic power plant. It was pointed out that under Charlotte’s zoning ordinance, there are no restrictions on such construction except as to size and bulk of the plant. Some potential problems cited were cooling of discharge water, ecology, contamination, and radiation fallout in case of accident.” — May 14, 1968

  • West-side water system
    The Planning Commission discussed a proposed gift by Harry Webb — to the west-side fire district — of a water main from the Shelburne town line, south on Greenbush Road past the Mack Farm, then heading west to what is now Aurora Farms (then Webb’s farm) and on to Point Bay Marina. It would also go west from the Old Brick Store to just over the railroad and east from the store to Mount Philo Road.

This water system was never built but imagine if it had been. At the same meeting, “Mary Field asked whether it might not work to the disadvantage of the town as a whole.” — July 9, 1968

  • Questionnaire
    The commission sent out 550 questionnaires to learn about the demographics, desires and shopping habits of the townspeople. Amazingly, half the recipients responded.

The other side with the map includes the text from six-page town plan. For a cleaned up and easier to read version.

A “Charlotte Today” section of the plan reports that Charlotte had grown very slowly from its founding as a town until 1960: “The population in 1800 was approximately 659 people, in 1900 it had reached 1,254. From 1900 until 1950 the town’s population had declined to 1215. By 1960, Charlotte had 1,271 residents.”

“There is mounting evidence that what Vermont has to offer, and especially what Charlotte has to offer as a place to live and work, is in ever-increasing demand and that people are willing to pay higher prices to live here than they would normally pay to live somewhere else,” the plan concludes. “It is the preservation of these great natural advantages that will continue to make others put a higher value on what we have to offer.”

  • The map
    You will see on the map that it was the desire in 1969 to have any growth happen in either the east or west village — depending on the availability of water and septic — and in the Mutton Hill area. Sound familiar?

Commerce was discouraged on Route 7 at the north and south ends of town. Cluster development was to be the way in the rural areas. The green patches were to be lightly developed if at all.

At the March 21, 1969, public hearing someone asked: “What about all those green blobs?”

The answer: “We are hopeful that by depicting these areas as proposed town parks and forest, people in the long run will be inspired to sell or donate land to the town.” Think of all the land that has been conserved since.

The most surprising item on the map? The possible ski area on the north side of Mount Philo. Krasnow Skiway?

  • Planning today
    Understanding the history of planning in Charlotte is important for putting into context the planning commission’s effort today to gauge the pulse of the town, plan the villages, update the land-use regulations and update the town plan.

The pressures felt by the 1969 planning commission are clear when looking at the population growth trend at the time and over the ensuing five decades. The goal was to prevent the significant growth that was happening north of town from happening in Charlotte. The population trend over this period demonstrates the success.

Put another way, there were on average 76 people per year moving into Charlotte in the 70’s. That number is now about 16 per year.

The 1969 planning commissioners said it best in their one-page introduction to their plan: “It was apparent that if we did not plan for ourselves someone else would plan for us; or, perhaps worse, no one would do any planning at all, and the growing urban and suburban sprawl at our borders would just move on through our area without restraint or thoughtful direction.”

(Charles Russell is chair of the development review board.)