By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — Several dozen Bristol residents piled into Holley Hall Tuesday night to discuss a long-in-the-making draft of a new town plan, many with the intention of weighing in on the topic du jour in Bristol: gravel extraction.
But concerned citizens hoping for hard and fast guidelines about where mining may or may not take place in the town left disappointed in the wake of the Bristol Planning Commission’s insistence on addressing gravel extraction explicitly in a zoning bylaw rather than the 90-page town plan. By Vermont statute, zoning rules are created based on a municipality’s official town plan.
Nonetheless, many at Tuesday night’s public hearing took it as a chance to voice their concerns about new mining developments and urge commissioners to consider changing the language that addresses the topic in the current town plan draft.
Other residents offered their opinions on issues that included conservation, infrastructure, climate change, wastewater and storm water handling, and housing in Bristol — and not a few voiced frustration that the so-called “gravel pit fetish,” as the issue was dubbed by George Vince, so dominated Tuesday night’s discussion.
The draft — over four years in the making — represents a tenfold increase in the size of the Bristol Town Plan. The primary purpose of Tuesday’s hearing, Planning Commission Chairman Tom Wells explained to those in attendance, was for the planning commission to collect feedback and comments on the draft.
MINDS ON MINING
After Wells turned the floor over to residents — remarking, “This is your night” — the issue of gravel extraction popped up right away.
The draft plan says mining should not take place in core residential areas or downtown areas. The plan explicitly states that there is “strong public support” for mining in Bristol, so long as it can be done in a manner that addresses issues like public health and safety, aesthetics, noise, air quality and environmental impacts.
Wells expressed the planning commission’s intention to handle the question of exactly which zones might be appropriate for mining in a zoning bylaw amendment to be voted on by Bristol residents, though exactly when is unknown. He said that the commission has already made steps to undertake a study with a private planning firm on gravel extraction in the town.
John “Slim” Pickens voiced his concerns about the allegedly selective use of data from a 2006 survey of town residents, which was used to support the claim of “strong public support” for mining. (Later in the meeting, another resident expressed some dissatisfaction with that same survey, explaining that he’d found many of the questions “nebulous.”)
In particular, Pickens worried that survey data was misrepresented in the draft of the town plan to suggest that Bristol residents heavily favored new mining development.
Pickens argued that, in fact, a closer examination of the survey data showed that more than half of the survey respondents favored some geographical prohibitions on mining. Many more, Pickens said, value Bristol’s scenic vistas, farmlands, wildlife habitats, agricultural lands and Main Street, and “dead last” among topics that survey respondents thought Bristol should pursue was “heavy industry.”
“This assertion (of ‘strong support’ for mining) contradicts other goals that are repeatedly stressed in many other parts of the draft plan,” said Pickens. “These goals include protecting the compact, rural village character of Bristol, protecting businesses on Main Street, and preventing sprawl.”
Some sand and gravel pit opponents, like John Moyers and Jim Dumont, expressed concern over the fact that the plan explicitly states where in town mining is prohibited. They said that this will implicitly open the rest of the town up to new mining developments.
Dumont, a lawyer in town, submitted his concerns on this matter to the commission in writing, and was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.
In one of the evening’s most heated exchanges, Moyers put several questions before the planning commission about the draft, looking, he said, for some explanation for changes that have been made to the plan.
Moyers questioned the commission about the elimination of explicit prohibitions on heavy industry in certain districts, as well as the effects of “expand(ing) the areas where mining is allowed” in town.
Though Moyers insisted on asking direct questions, Wells explained that the commission’s task on Tuesday was to gather public comment.
“I’ve been very patient through this process,” said Moyers. “I’ve asked some of these questions from the beginning, and you’ve always said, ‘Well, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.’
“Well, here it is,” Moyers continued. “We have a draft. Will none of you — none of you — answer my questions?”
To that, commission member Willow Wheelock said that a more appropriate time for answers will come after the commission — which Wheelock characterized as extremely diverse — has had a chance to sit down together and process the comments generated over the course of the evening, rather than engaging in debate.
While Moyers contended that debate is healthy, Wheelock argued that such a back and forth would limit the real intention of the hearing — to gather information from as many residents as possible.
On this same note, Wells early in the evening expressed a desire to look beyond just the gravel pit issue in examining the draft plan.
“The plan is about a lot more than gravel extraction. It is a half a page of the 90 pages that we’re dealing with,” said Wells. “We know that a lot of people are concerned about it, but we would rather not have the plan be hostage to this one issue.”
But at least one person at Tuesday’s hearing felt that “one issue” needed to be dealt with, once and for all.
“I think it will be easier in the long run for the planning commission to deal with the zoning issues as it relates to earth extraction now … Let’s deal with it now. We’re here,” said Starksboro resident and local entrepreneur Kevin Harper.
BEYOND GRAVEL PITS
As the meeting wore on, a few speakers — Lincoln resident George Vince, who practices law in Bristol, among them — expressed frustration at a perceived preoccupation with gravel pits.
“I realize that it’s a hot-button issue, and I realize that some would prefer to make this a referendum on gravel extraction, but there are 93 pages and there are a thousand issues that the board needs to address,” Vince said. “I think it’s really important to broaden the discussion.”
Vince said that, in his opinion, there are other potential problems that could be just as damaging to Bristol as gravel extraction, among them the loss of farmland, forestland and Bristol’s rural village character.
“We have to look at the big picture,” Vince said. “We can’t let the gravel pit fetish overcome the big items.”
Public comment on Tuesday night was not limited, though, to the topic of the gravel pits in Bristol. Chair of the Conservation Commission Bruce Acciavatti shared his frustrations with the planning commission that much of the language on energy and resource conservation that his committee drafted was absent from the draft.
Though a report from the conservation commission is included in the draft plan’s appendix, Acciavatti worried that recommendations from the commission lacked weight, being absent from the plan itself.
One-time planning commission member David Brynn, in a similar vein, urged the board to beef up sections of the plan on environmental and natural resources, as well as consider adding a “food and farming” section to the report. Brynn also argued that Bristol’s response to climate change should play a large role in the plan.
Helen Weston, a mother of two teenagers heading off to college next year, said that she was worried about ways the town can encourage young people to ultimately settle in Bristol.
Already, she said, her children are talking about how much they love their hometown — and how expensive it is for young people to make a life here. Also addressing issues of affordability and quality of life, Moyers voiced concerns at a small change in the draft that encouraged local businesses to pay a “fair wage” instead of a “living wage.”
Other individuals commented on keeping sidewalks cleared in the winter and in good shape, and on the importance of considering accessibility in Bristol for elders and people with disabilities.
Several Bristol residents urged the commission to directly address issues of storm water and wastewater treatment. Developing effective wastewater facilities, Harper said, could encourage business in Bristol. Harper also encouraged the planning commission to consider elder housing issues and the possibilities for building trails in town as they move forward with the draft plan.
Of those who spoke on Tuesday, many expressed gratitude to the commission for the years of hard work that have gone into building the draft as it stands, and several remarked on its comprehensiveness and quality.
The commission will consider these comments at future meetings, revise the draft, and eventually — after at least one more public hearing — pass the draft on to the Bristol selectboard.
Though the timeline remains undeveloped, Bristol residents will ultimately vote on the new town plan by Australian ballot.