Opinion ― Charlotte: Where do we go from here?


By Peter Joslin, Former chair of the Charlotte Planning Commission

Cataracts
Five or six years ago I realized I was seeing halos around lights at night and there appeared to be something compromising my vision, a lack of clarity, haziness that seemed to come and go.  My optometrist confirmed my problem: cataracts. About a month later I had them removed. As a painter, I was excited and anxious to see the difference. It was remarkable. A veil had been lifted, the whites in the corrected eye were pure and neutral, colors richer. I had no idea cataracts had altered my vision so significantly. It happened over many years. So slow, it was imperceptible until it became obvious something was wrong. I expect you know where I’m going with this: I believe we, as a town, are hindered by cataracts, and we have been unable to see the subtle but persistent infill of development in the rural areas of town while the villages remain static.

Let’s take a step back. Approximately 40 years ago the town enacted the Planning Commission’s density requirements in an effort to prevent sprawl. The regulations stipulated a minimum lot area of five acres per residential dwelling unit in the rural, village, village commercial and commercial/light industrial districts, and one acre for non-residential. The town was rightly concerned that sprawl would destroy what was most cherished by Charlotters and what made the town so unique—vast open spaces, farms, beautiful vistas, woodlands and streams, described in the Town Plan as “areas of high public value.” Planned Residential Developments (PRDs) were another tool that enabled the Planning Commission (now the Development Review Board) to cluster housing to minimize impacts on areas of high public value.

Concerns to protect areas of high public value and limit sprawl were front and center in the original Town Plan of 1969, then called the “Charlotte Comprehensive Plan.” In its introduction it stated: “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.” Prescient words from 1969! Under the heading “Charlotte’s Future,” it spoke about growth: “The county’s [Chittenden] growth will exert its influence on the growth of Charlotte and, if the trend continues, our town will have between 5,000 and 6,000 or more people by the  start of the next century.” It referenced cultural and economic growth while protecting ”the great natural values it already has,” concluding with, “Essentially, these problems [growth] can be reduced to answering two major questions—what do we have? and what should we do with  it?”

Good questions and especially pertinent today. Do we continue the slow and persistent infill in the rural districts while the villages remain stagnant, or make a concerted effort to focus growth in the village areas? The 2018 Charlotte Town Plan stipulates in goals for tomorrow, “To reinforce historic settlement patterns by focusing growth in our hamlets, and east and west villages, while conserving Areas of High Public Value.”

Under Housing Policies, the Town Plan stipulates:

  • Development in the village districts should be Such development should consider planned improvements and capital expenditures and allow for the adequate provision of services.
  • New development in the village areas should provide strong visual, vehicular and pedestrian connections to the existing settlement and

And under Housing Strategies:

  • Evaluate strategies for the possible development in and around existing villages, including    the analysis of existing and planned facilities (e.g., wastewater, water supply, run-off, highway access and Complete Streets.

This goal can be traced all the way back to the “Comprehensive Plan” of 1969: “Charlotte and East Charlotte Villages and the Mutton Hill area are portions of the Town which may develop in greater density, but still remain an equivalent of one residence per acre, provided that these areas can meet state health department and local board of health standards for sewage disposal. Such areas could provide the conveniences and other advantages of community life desired by families and individuals, especially those with young children or older, retired people.” Note that in 1969 the density requirement was one acre.

During Governor Scott’s fiscal budget address on Jan. 18, he stated, “Right now, the supply of modestly priced homes for sale is practically non-existent. As of December, the median home price was more than $369,000. As of last week, according to the Vermont Association of Realtors, there were only 136 homes for sale that a middle-income family can  afford, and only five in Chittenden County.” Not surprisingly, there are none in Charlotte.

The population of Charlotte is 3,754, lower than the estimate of 5,000-6,000 made in 1969. Enrollment at Charlotte Central School, from data supplied by CCS, indicates below-average enrollment for the last eight years. In 2004, total enrollment in grades 1-8 was 464, compared  to 328 in 2021, a 29 percent decline.

So, where do we go from here? It’s time to remove the cataracts and develop new strategies to focus growth in and around the village areas, retain the open land and farms we cherish, reduce the cost of housing to enable people of various income levels to become part of the town fabric. This is what the Town Plan has stipulated since its inception in 1969.





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