A look at Charlotte Community Development and its efforts to bring vitality to the town
Brett Sigurdson | The Charlotte News
With its six acres of colorful flowers surrounding a striking, angular retail store, the Vermont Wildflower Farm on Route 7 has been a landmark in Charlotte since 1981. The wildflower path that cuts through the woods is a popular tourist stop in the summer, and the Seed Shop offers visitors a chance to buy over 100 seed varieties—the largest such supplier in the Northeast.
All of this gives Charlotte some measure of status, not to mention a successful local business. But the town is in danger of losing the Vermont Wildflower Farm, whose business is booming at such a rate that owners Chris and Diana Borie need to expand beyond the means of their current property.
“We have completely outgrown the property as the business is growing at a tremendous rate,” explained Diana, adding, “We need a much larger tract of land.”
The Wildflower Farm property is now listed for sale. Once the building and land have sold, the Bories will begin looking at places that fit their need for a retail store, large warehouse and small events venue. It’s possible that the next site won’t be in Charlotte.
“Ideally, we would like to remain in Charlotte,” she said. “However, the regulatory environment may play a role as it seems it is very strict and not open to new growth.”
Charlotters have heard this story before: local business wants to grow and stay local but comes up against zoning obstacles and decides to leave.
In 1995, for example, Charlotte-based Country Home Products wanted to expand its operation and turn what is now the Old Lantern into office space for 100 employees. The company withdrew its application after it was clear the project didn’t conform to zoning regulations. The company soon moved to Vergennes.
More recently, Dustin Glasscoe last year moved his Vermont Farm Table operation out of his Charlotte workshop to a 10,000 square-foot space in Bristol due to a lack of space to meet his increased business volume.
It’s a situation Diana Borie herself has seen before. “In my personal opinion, I have seen many folks come and go trying to establish some great business in the town, only to be turned down,” she said. “Charlotte is becoming ‘vacant’.”
“Charlotte needs to offer a reason for folks to come down to Charlotte,” she added, “whether it be for tourism, to summer here or move here. Right now, there is virtually nothing to entice folks.”
However, there’s a group that has been working behind the scenes for the last year to do just that.
Beyond economic development
At Town Party this year, one of the busiest tables beckoned attendees with a big sign asking if Charlotters would like to see the town have a restaurant/pub, grocery store, pharmacy, bakery, community meeting space or bookstore. A total of 74 people responded to the survey, with the majority—66 of respondents—choosing a restaurant/pub.
This is no surprise to Mike Russell, Dana Hanley or Karen Frost— three of the dozen or so Charlotte business owners, professionals and interested citizens who make up Charlotte Community Development (CCD), an independent group that has been working quietly for the last year to help make economic opportunities become a reality in Charlotte.
“The restaurant/pub idea is very popular,” said Hanley, a professional planner and former Planning Commission member.
Russell, Hanley and Frost make up a subgroup of the CCD they’ve called “Building Community Momentum,” whose task is research and public outreach, and they recently spoke to The Charlotte News about the group’s efforts.
According to Russell, CCD’s work was sparked by The News’s Charlotte’s Web series, which examined population and economic issues facing Charlotte as town officials work on a revision of the town plan. With only a few members, the then-unnamed group began talking with business owners in Charlotte and Chittenden County about how to make Charlotte more friendly for business owners and housing seekers.
The group’s work has become more focused since then. At Town Party, CCD members shared their three main priorities: 1) amending the town’s land use regulations, 2) pushing the town to adopt a wastewater ordinance and 3) attaining a Village Center Designation for the East and West villages.
All of these are projects or goals that have been worked on by prior committees, but they haven’t been seen to completion. For example, a 2011 Charlotte Wastewater Committee study urged the town to develop an ordinance for the West Village that would create a policy for wastewater use and growth. Yet town officials have not acted on the group’s recommendation, one reason for a dearth of activity in the West Village.
“In a way, our work is really easy because it’s really just reminding people we talked about this, we worked that out, we know how this works, we know what people want,” said Russell.
“The language in town plans going back until at least 1990 supports the concentration of growth and activity in the two village centers,” added Hanley. “That is so clearly expressed in the Town Plan in several different areas that we feel it’s the kind of issue that has had so much community support over the decades that we’re just a group that’s trying to push it along in the right direction. We just want to help boards and commissions in the town and act as an independent advisory group to help them in their decision making.”
All three point to several reasons why the town has not carried through on these initiatives: other town-wide priorities have shifted town officials’ attentions, elections and personnel changes on boards, a lack of follow-through on the part of boards. But now there seems to be some momentum among community members, says Frost.
“Over the years, it feels like there has been so much good work done and things have not come to fruition,” she said. “Demographics are changing, what people want is changing. We see places that are under-utilized and see what we can do to help them be more productively used.”
In early June, the CCD submitted a packet of recommendations to the Planning Commission that offered a level-headed critique of the town’s progress on economic development, as well as recommendations for a path forward. They start with amending the town’s land use regulations, which Hanley describes as “conservative,” adding, “We could use some regulations that are a little more nimble in so far as attracting some good commercial development here.”
“Our progress toward meeting some critical goals of the [Town Plan] concerning commercial uses, has been halting at best,” according to the CCD, “and in some cases we are further from meeting them today than when the plan was initially adopted.”
The difficulty in establishing such businesses isn’t from lack of demand—the CCD cites several surveys that indicate Charlotters want more businesses and services. Rather, according to the CCD, it’s “the difficulty in obtaining permits to establish businesses, in general, in Charlotte.”
The main issue stems from land use regulations that classify most commercial enterprises as “conditional use” rather than “permitted uses.” In the language of planning, a permitted use is allowed by right. A conditional use, however, is for projects that stand outside established zoning standards, requiring deliberation between planning officials. While this process gives towns greater flexibility, it also allows for more subjectivity from citizen planners, especially when it comes to addressing a common planning conundrum in Charlotte: maintaining the character of the town.
“If we can get rid of subjective assessments regarding the character of the area, the more the better,” said Hanley. “You just don’t have to do that if it’s a permitted use, and it’s more attractive to not have to go through that layer of review.”
The group is careful to point out that it’s not promoting growth out of scale with the town. Rather, the predominance of conditional uses in the town has hurt businesses in Charlotte already more than those that may want to come to Charlotte—effectively cutting off economic growth from within.
“I don’t want to give the impression that we think lots of outside money and outside developers need to come to Charlotte,” said Russell. “Some of the anecdotes we can tell you, almost all of them involve local businesses that have considered expanding in Charlotte and have decided that other towns are more attractive because the likelihood of getting approval is higher.”
In order to meet the Town Plan’s goal of a vibrant West Village, the CCD has recommended expanding the language of the land use regulations to allow more permitted uses, including retail space, a restaurant, inn, veterinary clinic, grocery store and financial institution.
But the CCD also sees a lot of potential in the light industrial district on Ferry Road. Most of the two large buildings there are in “disrepair and not anywhere near fully occupied,” states the recommendations.
The measures and the changes the CCD proposed will add “clarity to the uses in the village commercial district and the West Charlotte village district that will make it easier for prospective businesses and developers to understand our regulations and attempt to come to town,” said Hanley.
“Businesses need certainty and they’re going to go where they can find certainty,” Russell added.
One important part of the group’s recommendations is a more open adaptive- reuse policy, which would allow property owners the flexibility to redesign homes and structures in the village to support business uses, something that is currently a conditional use.
“That could open a world of opportunity for small-business creation or expansion within the villages,” said Hanley.
At a Planning Commission meeting in July in which the CCD’s recommendations filled the agenda, Selectboard member Fritz Tegatz shared his concern that discontinuing conditional uses will dilute the town’s ability to regulate development. However, Town Planning and Zoning Administrator Jeannine McCrumb noted that the shift from conditional use to permitted use would still require a site plan review—giving the town power in the planning process—but would make it easier to start a business in town.
Before any of these changes to the Land Use Regulations can be codified, Charlotters will have to vote on them, likely in November. Prior to that, voters will be able to voice their opinions in at least two public hearings, neither of which has been scheduled as of publication.
Everything from wastewater
At a Planning Commission meeting in June, Dave Marshall, a CCD member who also served on the 2011 Charlotte Wastewater Committee with Hanley, explained that the town has the potential to triple its septic capacity in the West Village with some infrastructure investment. With more septic capacity, the town could support a restaurant/pub and other businesses and homes.
But in order to get to this point, the CCD is urging a wastewater ordinance that would not only identify the projects town officials could encourage but also how much they would charge for use of town septic. That money could be used to pay for maintenance and upgrades to the system.
According to Russell, right now the next step is to have the Selectboard reconstitute the wastewater group and make it a standing committee.
“Having that group formally in place, interacting with the Selectboard on a regular basis, pushing this work along, is a critical part to that,” said Russell.
Wastewater is the single biggest resource that could encourage growth in the West Village, say CCD members. With an ordinance in place, it could provoke a bevy of activity.
“We really feel that the commercial service, the vitality of the village, is ripe and ready,” said Russell. “Because of the work of the wastewater committee there’s a clean line of sight from where we are now and where we think we could be.”
Revitalizing the villages
If growth is to be centered in the villages, the CCD is urging the town to attain the state’s Village Center Designation. The program is meant to help towns revitalize village centers through programs that help diversify a town’s economic development activities, improve public infrastructure, and promote development that meets housing needs while maintaining the historic settlement patterns of the community.
The designation—which Shelburne, Hinesburg, Richmond and other Chittenden County towns have—comes with a list of benefits such as tax credits on improvements to buildings and houses within the designated areas, priority consideration for state grants and the potential for state assessment districts, which could “raise funds for both operating costs and capital expenses to support specific projects in the designated village center,” according to state documents.
“This effort isn’t to suburbanize Charlotte in any way that people would find objectionable,” said Hanley. “It’s to fortify our rural village. There are state programs that give incentives that we can avail ourselves of that will help us in our efforts.”
The town is now at work pursuing this designation. A state representative will visit the villages on August 20 at 5 p.m. to examine the boundaries of potentially designated areas. A presentation with the Planning Commission will follow at 7 p.m.
Looking long term
If the Vermont Wildflower Farm leaves Charlotte, Diana Borie will look back at her time in Charlotte fondly.
“We are sad to leave this particular property,” she said. “It is one of a kind, beautiful and has been our baby for 10 years. A lot of time and effort has gone into it.”
However, Russell has reached out to the Bories with ideas of where they could expand in Charlotte in an effort to keep their business local.
If he and the CCD are successful in helping pave the way for the Wildflower Farm to stay in Charlotte, it will be one of many victories they hope to have, starting with their three initiatives.
“These things we’re working on are in and of themselves a really big deal,” said Hanley. “If we can check these things off that would be really great.”
Until then, the members of the CCD will continue their efforts to work with the town, business owners—they’re hoping to schedule a monthly business breakfast in the coming months—and interested parties now and into the future.
“We see this as a long-term community development group,” said Frost. “We want to be a force for good for the foreseeable future.”
What do you think about business developments, or lack thereof, in Charlotte? Voice your support or concerns—submit a letter to the editor at News@charlottenewsvt.com. The CCD can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.