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What the heck is going on with wetlands in the West Village?
An explainer of the Charlotte Family Health Center issue
Chea Waters Evans
On June 9, I wrote an article about a Charlotte Family Health Center building application for a facility in the West Village, which at the time was pretty much ready to roll with the Planning Commission. The last sentence of my article was this: “Site plan approval wasn’t quite granted at the end of the meeting, though the plan is to put it on the July 1 Planning Commission agenda with the understanding that [project engineer] Larose would prepare a detailed stormwater plan, that nothing else unusual would happen with the application, and that approval would be likely and swift.”
Well, something unusual definitely happened with the application. (See here for just a bit of it.) After this kerfuffle, that permit’s approval was suddenly very much not a done deal.
Concerned Charlotters (some supportive, some not so much) are attending public meetings and writing Front Porch Forum posts about wetlands and wetland buffers, about groundwater recharge, about runoff or lack thereof, about support for the doctors who are trying to keep their business in town and provide a valuable service that is part of the town plan, and about support for wetlands and land use regulations.
Here’s a Q&A that I made up out of questions I’ve heard from people in town as I reported on the issue. I pulled the answers from public documents, discussions during public meetings, and interviews with community members and involved parties.
Do the proposed Charlotte Family Health Center building and parking lot encroach on a wetland?
According to Town Planner Larry Lewack, “The project’s proposed encroachment on those wetlands is only 54 sq. ft., and (including the wetland buffers) totals 14,420 sq. ft., which represents less than 16% of the 2-acre site itself. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources has provided preliminary approval of this wetland impact. Zooming out to the impact on the larger wetland complex, this development impacts less than ½ of 1 percent of the overall 54.7-acre subject parcel.”
Do land use regulations in Charlotte prohibit building on or near wetlands?
Section 3.15 (E) of the Charlotte Land Use Regulations reads, “Upon receipt of an application for subdivision or land development within 50 feet of a potentially significant wetland … the Zoning Administrator, Planning Commission or Board of Adjustment may require the applicant to provide a delineation of wetland boundaries within an area bounded by the nearer of either 200 feet from any proposed site improvements or the property line, unless the adjoining property-owner allows delineation on his/her property, in which case the delineation shall extend the full 200 feet regardless of property line. Such delineation shall be performed by a qualified professional in accordance with accepted federal and state methodologies to determine the wetland classification, and whether or not the wetland is significant and warrants protection.”
Section (F), titled Wetland Permits, says, “In order to protect water quality and wetland functions, land development in or near a classified wetland or buffer may require a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers or the State of Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.”
A provision for determining if a wetland warrants protection, and a section in the land use regulations titled “Wetland Permits” makes it seem like wetland permits are allowed, right? Not according to Jon Anderson, an attorney with Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer in Burlington. He was retained by Ronda Moore (see above link to an article about her involvement in the application) and spoke at a Planning Commission meeting last month.
In an interview with The Charlotte Bridge, Anderson said he can’t comment on much, but he could say one thing: the word “shall” is an important one, and its presence in a separate section of the LURs is significant. His argument is that “shall” is an absolute directive, and should take precedence over all other language in the LURs.
Anderson is referring to the LUR that regulates site plan review. Section 5.5 (E) (1) reads, “Site layout and design shall incorporate and protect significant site features, including but not limited to: existing vegetation, prime agricultural soils and active agricultural areas; surface waters, wetlands, shorelines and associated buffer areas; special natural areas and wildlife habitat; prominent ridgelines, hilltops, and areas with slopes 15% or greater; and historic sites and structures, including stone walls and fences. Conditions may be imposed as appropriate with regard to site clearing and preparation, the siting of structures and associated improvements, and the establishment of increased setbacks and/or buffers to incorporate or protect existing site features.”
That “shall” in the first sentence overrides all else, he says.
Has a permit been issued to allow wetland development here?
A year ago, in June 2020, Tina Heath, district wetland ecologist in Chittenden County with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, wrote in an email to CFHC doctors, “Your project purpose … is satisfactory. I talked to my manager and colleagues yesterday to get a collective census about this project moving forward. The project may be eligible for a wetlands permit, with the required conditions stated below.”
The restrictions she lists are wastewater tied into the municipal sewer system, which has already happened, and that “all impacts are limited to the managed and disturbed wetland and buffer zone north of the existing access drive behind the house.” (Here’s a map.) She also noted that there’s a possibility in the future that additional stormwater offset land in the area would need to be acquired by the CFHC, which hasn’t come up since, but a representative of the health center recently said they are prepared to do so.
Dori Barton, an ecologist and project manager with Arrowwood Environmental, was hired this spring by the CFHC to independently evaluate the wetland area. She wrote in an email on June 17, “The State of Vermont Wetlands Program and I are both in agreement that the wetland complex to the south of the existing access drive has significant wetland function and value and is worthy of protection. The wetland area north of the access drive is managed as residential lawn and lacks significant wetland function and value. The buffer associated with this wetland area is also managed as lawn, as well as containing existing residential structures.” The CFHC plans stay away from the south section altogether.
Barton also writes, “The Project has been designed to avoid all but 230 square feet of wetland in the lawn area. The wetland buffer impact is associated with existing buildings and again managed lawn. The Project has been designed to avoid significant wetland areas and has far exceeded the minimization of impact to wetland that was expected earlier in the design process. The areas of impact are limited to existing disturbance areas and will not have a negative impact on the wetland complex to the south.”
Will there be environmental impact from the health center parking lot?
Moore wrote in an email to Lewack on June 16, “The concept of a health clinic in the Town on its face seems like a good idea. However, the magnitude of the impervious surfaces on the proposed driveway and parking lot and the 4,200 square foot building abutting the remaining undeveloped wetland in the West Village is way out of scale and sets a dangerous precedent for every wetland in Charlotte.”
Lewack said in an email to Moore on that same day that he concurs that “it’s evident that any additional paved parking areas do capture and concentrate chemical contaminants such as motor oil, antifreeze, and salt residues from motor vehicles. But now that I’ve studied the available data, it’s my view that this data does NOT support your conclusion that the Bruce estate property is ‘a critical groundwater recharge area for the West Village.’” (Moore asserted this in both a Planning Commission meeting and in an essay she wrote and submitted to the town titled “Source Protection Areas—Neglected resources in Charlotte’s oldest developments: the East and West Villages.”)
To check out any of the documents, emails, maps, and other related materials, click here a link to the project page on the Town of Charlotte’s web site.