Environmental Advocates Square Off in Charlotte Development Debate
CHARLOTTE - As potential subdivision sites grow scarcer in Chittenden County, conflicts between current residents and housing developers are becoming more common as well as more heated. One such controversy in Charlotte predictably centers on the flashpoint of environmental protection. Not so typically, however, green concerns are being invoked by both sides in this showdown.
Peter Schneider and Jessica Donavan, a Burlington couple, are proposing to build an eight-home development on their 52-acre Pease Mountain property behind the Charlotte Central School. Town planners have designated the site, which is more of a hill than a mountain, as one of Charlotte's many "areas of high public value," because of its wetlands, wildlife habitats, clay plain forest and stone outcroppings.
Citing these natural features, a few nearby homeowners and other Charlotte residents are denouncing the project through a website (save peasemountain.com) and in detailed arguments before town boards.
"It's not a NIMBY thing," insists Jan Schwarz, who has lived adjacent to the site for the past 14 years. "If I were living anywhere else in Charlotte, I'd still be furious at what might happen to one of the few relatively undisturbed areas in the town accessible to the public."
Schwarz and Pat Robar, another neighboring property owner, both say they base their opposition to the proposed development primarily on the damage it would do to wildlife on Pease Mountain. The two women enumerated potentially affected species during one of their regular hikes on a trail that runs through the site. Bobcats live here, they said, in addition to turkeys, fox, deer, owls, ravens and hawks.
"It's a little Noah's Ark up there," agrees Clark Hinsdale III. A member of a Charlotte family with extensive local land holdings, Hinsdale has been hired by Schneider and Donavan to help them obtain local and state permits for the project. Both sides of the debate acknowledge Hinsdale's expertise in land-use regulations. But independent parties say projects with which he is associated often draw intensive scrutiny because of his high profile. Organic tomato farmer David Miskell is also on the project's payroll.
Schneider and Donavan don't qualify as rapacious villains, Hinsdale argues. "I happen to think the town won the lottery when these two people bought that property," he says. "Peter and Jessie have never shut off access to their land, even though strategically that would be the smartest thing for them to do."
Schneider works as a green-building consultant for the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. He says he and Donavan are affixing "very strict covenants" to the roughly 1-acre lots they're selling on Pease Mountain in order to ensure that home builders meet standards set forth in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Schneider explains that LEED's gold-level certification will be obtained by Pease Mountain homeowners partly through mandated installation of grass-pellet boilers as a renewable energy source.
The access road, individual driveways, shared septic system and building lots themselves will account for only 13 of the property's 52 acres, Schneider adds. "This clustered approach preserves open space and habitat."
Project opponent Robar acknowledges that "No one doubts that [the developers] have some great ideas. In a suitable place this would probably be a really good development. But this isn't a suitable place."
Hinsdale, who helped win permits for the pioneering Ten Stones co-housing development in Charlotte, depicts the Pease Mountain project as having a similarly communal quality. "The only difference is there won't be a common house" shared by the clustered units, he explains. Schneider favorably contrasts his "community-focused" project to the single homes that have sprouted throughout Charlotte on 5-to-10-acre properties.
Ten Stones and Pease Mountain may have similarities in sales prices as well. Schneider intends to sell building lots for $200,000 apiece, with costs of construction bringing the estimated total for a 2000-square-foot house to $600,000. "You can't buy much more than a bungalow in Ten Stones for that," Hinsdale observes.
Schneider uses his project's proximity to the school as another green selling point.
"We think this is a great place to concentrate development in Charlotte," he says. "Hardly any kids can walk now to the Charlotte Central School, but with these homes it'll be an easy distance on a trail. The kids won't have to be driven back and forth in automobiles."
Schneider and Donavan, who plan to build a home of their own on the site, have two young children and a third due before the end of the month.
On the pivotal issue of wildlife conservation, Schneider points to the position taken by the University of Vermont, which manages a 180-acre natural area adjacent to his property. "We don't object to the project as currently configured - provided we can solve the challenge of providing access to the trail," says Rick Paradis, manager of UVM's natural areas. While construction of eight homes "may contribute to some fragmentation of the land," Paradis acknowledges, he believes mitigating measures planned by Schneider and Donavan "should minimize the impact on wildlife."
The planners are weighing various options for rerouting the trail between the school and the natural area. "It should be possible to work something out," Paradis says.
The Charlotte Conservation Commission offers a much less sanguine assessment of the project.
"The proposed eight-unit development basically creates a new hamlet, and creates it inside a Town-designated Critical Wildlife Habitat," the conservation body stated in a recent submission to the Charlotte Planning Commission, which it advises. "Such a hamlet (this level of density) would violate both the spirit and the letter of the Town Plan and land use regulations - since those guiding documents call for the protection (not the destruction) of areas of high public value, and the concentration of growth in existing villages and hamlets (rather than the creation of new ones)."
Ed Stone, a member of the Charlotte Select Board, describes the Pease Mountain property as "exactly the kind of area that was supposed to be saved" through a conservation fund established by the town 10 years ago. "When this is gone," Stone predicts, "it's going to rip the heart out of a lot of people."
But the majority of Stone's colleagues don't see the project as potentially catastrophic. The Select Board voted 3-2 last month to allow construction of an access road running through a wetland area.
The town planning commission, which has given the project preliminary approval, will hear additional arguments next month. Once hearings are concluded, the commission will have up to 45 days to debate the project before issuing a final ruling. The losing side is almost certain to appeal at the local level. Given that decisions on needed state permits can be contested as well, it's likely that many months will pass before this chapter in Chittenden County's housing-development saga comes to a close.