Commentary: Proposed zoning amendments for village commercial district – “permitted” use versus “conditional” use

In March, Charlotte voters will be asked to vote on many items by Australian ballot. As a group dedicated to responsible revitalization of Charlotte’s villages, we would like to focus attention on what we believe to be an important proposed change to Charlotte’s Land Use Regulations that has been misunderstood or mischaracterized by some well-meaning village residents. The change will allow the permitting and development of some businesses in the village without the extra hurdle, called “conditional review,” required by the existing regulations.

It is important to understand that this change does not open the floodgates to development. Rather, it reforms our regulations to be consistent with our Town Plan. As Town Planner Jeannine McCrumb wrote in her memo presenting the Planning Commission’s proposal to the Selectboard, this change “would reduce the uncertainties associated with conditional use review for uses believed to be compatible with the purposes of a zoning district. For example, retail, restaurant and cultural facilities of an appropriate scale seem to be uses congruent with what we envision in our village commercial district; these would become permitted uses rather than conditional uses in that district. Permitted commercial uses will still be subject to site plan review by the Planning Commission.”

Surveys have shown that most Charlotters would like to see a few new businesses in town to provide certain basic services. Among those commonly mentioned are a small restaurant or café and a gas station at the intersection of Route 7 and Ferry Road. These types of businesses—which are ordinary and normal in small towns—are classified in Charlotte’s zoning bylaws as “conditional” uses, even in the Village Commercial District. This means that an applicant for such a use must meet certain criteria that are normally reserved only for unusual types of businesses. Among these is the criterion that the business fit with the “character of the area.” Because this is a highly subjective standard, even if the Charlotte Zoning Board of Adjustment approves such an application and even if our Town Plan encourages the proposed business, such an approval could be appealed to the highest court in the state, at great cost to the applicant. This is the uncertainty that the Planning Commission’s proposal is intended to eliminate.

Being classified as a “permitted” use doesn’t mean that a business will be automatically allowed to open. It only means that the type of business in question is acceptable in our commercial districts and can’t be challenged on the ground that it doesn’t fit the character of the area. The applicant would still have to obtain other local and state approvals to ensure that the project meets the environmental and aesthetic standards of Charlotte and that it doesn’t adversely affect the important property and privacy interests of its neighbors.

For instance, the project will be subject to site-plan review by the Planning Commission to ensure (among other requirements) that its design and appearance comport with the character of the area, that traffic circulation and parking will be adequate and that surface water runoff is properly controlled. And if the business will use more water than what the property previously used, the applicant must show that the proposed additional water use will not adversely affect the water supply of others in the vicinity. If the project satisfies this requirement, as well as the other requirements of the state Wastewater and Water Supply Rules, it will receive a “Water Wastewater” (“WW”) permit, issued by the Town of Charlotte. A new commercial use will also require an Act 250 permit and possibly a stormwater discharge permit. In all of these proceedings, adjacent landowners and other interested persons can participate in the permitting process in order to protect their interests.

A group of West Village property owners objects to the change in the regulations, claiming it will hinder their ability to protect the supply of groundwater for their wells. They point out that groundwater in the area of the West Village is limited and ask that the existing list of conditional uses remain in place in order to prevent any project that might adversely affect the level of potable water currently supplied to their homes. This confuses two separate issues. As stated above, conditional use review addresses unusual projects that may not be appropriate for the neighborhood. The Wastewater and Water Supply Permit addresses the adequacy of the aquifer to handle the additional water requirements of any proposed development, be it commercial or residential. It appears to be a case of asking the town to continue imposing unneeded restrictions on changes desired by the rest of the town to protect the concerns of a few.

These are the important points to keep in mind when considering the Planning Commission’s proposal:

1. The purpose of conditional use review is to ensure that an unusual type of business will be appropriate for the town and is not meant to apply to the kinds of businesses that are clearly appropriate for our commercial districts.

2. Other regulations in place ensure that a new business will not adversely affect the current level of water supply available in the West Village: the Wastewater and Water Supply Permit; and in Charlotte applications for such permits are submitted and reviewed locally, providing an easy and inexpensive way for affected parties to participate in the process and ensure that the existing regulations are applied.

3. Single-family dwellings are not subject to conditional use review, yet a new or expanded residence could adversely affect the present supply of water to the homes already existing there, just as much or more than a new business. Keeping desired businesses in the “conditional use” category may not achieve the objective of protecting groundwater supplies; working directly on a solution to the groundwater issue will.

Bill Kiendl
Charles Russell
Dana Hanley
David Marshall
Howard Seaver
John Higgins
Karen Frost
Martha Perkins
Mike Russell
Nancy Wood