By Scooter MacMillan, Editor

Of late, the Charlotte Planning Commission has been enmeshed in planning. Just what was intended by the switch to a development review board — a planning commission that works on planning.

And a development review board that reviews development applications.

Much of the planning commission’s planning has been working on amendments to Charlotte’s land use regulations. Lots of that conversation has been about how much the town wants to constrain people in selling nonconforming lots, said town planner Larry Lewack.

A nonconforming lot is property that was grandfathered in when land use regulations were enacted, for example property where homes were already built on less than five acres per home when this requirement went into effect.

At the planning commission on April 7, Lewack said there had been “pushback” on a too rigid interpretation of land use regulations “to the effect that the more we constrain people from being able to sell preexisting, nonconforming lots, the more we foreclose on any other kinds of development that could happen.”

The planning commission spent a good bit of time discussing whether someone who owns a larger piece of property that’s been subdivided with undersized nonconforming lots should be merged if they sell the property together.

It is better to have a permitting process “that is as permissive as possible,” Lewack said.

Commissioner Linda Radimer said a person who owns a noncomforming lot should be able to sell it, and, if someone buys it and wants to develop that property, they should follow “the criteria.”

Commissioner Kyra Wegman said she believed it is stated as a goal in the town plan to decrease the number of nonconforming lots and the rest of the commission agreed with this.

“I feel like these days a lot of properties are owned by trusts and limited partnerships,” Lewack said.

A lot of times the same corporation or owner buys related parcels with the thought of eventually being able to do something on a merged block of land that they couldn’t do on separate blocks. Lewack said it’s difficult “to tease out who are the actual legal owners based on these complicated trust documents.”

The planning commission is in the middle of considering a number of amendments to the land use regulations. The vast and overwhelming majority of these amendments are either minor edits to clear up language like changing references to a zoning board to the new development review board or only slightly more significant “technical updates” edits the commission refers to as the “oops list.”

Most of the “oops list” is amendments to brief language covering changes in regulations or procedures over time or language in the land use regulations that needs to be clarified.

The 11 more significant amendments that would mean policy changes address a variety of such issues as when unattended, wrecked buildings become abandoned; requiring new construction to comply with state energy codes; considering waivers to minimum lot line and shoreline and wetland setback requirements; restricting accessory dwelling units; changing minimum lot sizes for homes built on property in either of the town’s villages from five to one acre; and allowing water and wastewater lines to run under roads to a property in an adjacent village commercial district.

Lewack argued for clarity in the land use regulations. For example, if a nonconforming structure burns down, the regulations should be clear about whether the owner can rebuild the structure with the same nonconformity. A nonconforming structure might be a building built too close to the required setbacks from lot lines when those requirements were enacted or taller than current restrictions.

One of the interminable topics covered in the planning commission’s epic reexamination of the land use regulations is accessory dwelling units and whether an accessory building can be built before a primary building.

The planning and zoning office is “often in a pickle” when people have a proposal to build an accessory dwelling unit first to live in while they build their larger primary home, Lewack said.

He asked if the commission’s position about a hypothetical situation where a couple build a smaller accessory building for their child and their spouse. Then, as the younger couple has children and that family grows, the older couple slows down and decides to swap houses so the growing family has more room. Overtime, how should the houses be considered as which is the primary and which the accessory dwelling?

However: How can you build an accessory unit if you don’t have an existing house? asked Bill Stuono. For the time being at least, his question went unanswered, tossed into the echo chamber of unclaimed rhetoric.

The members of the planning commission appeared to agree that size limitations on accessory dwellings should be amended so it’s based upon square footage rather than the number of bedrooms. Septic limitations may already impose bedroom limitations, but if the property has sufficient septic capacity, people should be able to decide what rooms they want within a footage restriction.

Before wrapping up this meeting’s discussion, Pughe threw another log on the rhetorical fire of land use regulation amendment considerations: “I think something we should talk about at some point is what an open space agreement is because it’s kind of like all over the place,” he said. “Currently, it’s effectively a conservation easement and I’m not sure that’s what the intent is for everywhere.”

He believes people want to use some open space land for other things than just be reserved as habitat.

“If it’s critical habitat for snail darter fish, we should treat it one way. If it’s just simply a farm field as you drive into the town you want to keep it as a farm field, that doesn’t seem like the rules,” Pughe said.

Advocating for interpreting the open space agreements differently in different places, Pughe admitted that he was a snowmobiler and he doesn’t believe that open space agreements should prohibit snowmobiling on all open space conserved land if the owners and the snail darters approve.

With 9 p.m. nipping at heels of the planning commission, before the meeting adjourned, Pughe took an opportunity to object to waivers the new development review board has issued that some have objected to.

“In my opinion the land use regulations are clear on what the intent is, and they’re consistent with how we’ve done things in the past,” Pughe said, explaining how he sees some of the development review board’s waivers as inconsistent with how the land use regulations have been practiced in the past or the regulations’ intent.

In so doing, Pughe staked out an opinion consistent with the views of a letter from the conservation commission to town boards and commissions, criticizing the development review board for waivers it has granted.

Pughe and the conservation commission believe the development review board has incorrectly ignored the 300 feet of road frontage requirement for a property owner in recent decisions and granting waivers permitting a road that connects with a town road via a right of way across a neighbor’s property.

Pughe argued the problem with interpreting the frontage requirements the way the development review board has could mean eventually people could try to use right of way to change lot size requirements.

He said the purpose of the frontage requirements is to “kind of keep people from developing lots way back and way off the road.”

Lewack said he had looked for text to support this interpretation by Pughe but hasn’t found it.

Pughe said the planning commission is planning to amend the land use regulations so they “circumvent” actions like the development review board’s waivers.

“We don’t agree with how the development review board has done that,” Pughe said.

Eventually, the conversation came to an end because of the time and not so much because of closure. But the planning commission will have at least four more public meetings about land use regulation amendments before they are officially adopted.

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