Editorial: Bristol: A time for collaboration?
Planning commission members in Bristol drew a line in the sand with their revised town plan, and voters boldly stepped over it.
By rejecting the town plan and the gravel extraction zoning ordinance by almost a 2-1 margin, town residents finally got their say on an issue that has dominated discussion for the past four years. The vote totals tell the story: Bristol residents voted 598-364 against the proposed town plan, and 627-349 against the gravel extraction zoning ordinance. That is overwhelming.
So, that’s that. No reason to regret the time spent or the community dissension. It is all part of the sometimes-messy democratic process.
Now it’s time to take a different tack and, in a very positive sign, planning commission chair Tom Wells told residents at a Town Meeting discussion Monday night that commission members would use the vote to guide their future direction. “One could argue that we’ve drawn the line in the wrong place,” he told residents Monday night. “If the voters feel that way, the planning commission will go back and work on that.”
Fair enough. The admitted goal now is to heed the public will and figure out a way to focus residential development around the core of the village center and allow gravel extraction to be developed in zones outside of that area. To the commission’s credit, they had made a sincere effort to define such a distinction, but erred by allowing land too close to the downtown and in conservation districts to be included. It should be simple enough to redraw the lines for gravel extraction and other industrial uses, seek community agreement and move on to a second vote in September.
And as we have said previously, much of the work on the town plan has been excellent and of the 110-pages, very few will need to be reworked. That said, we suspect that other sections of the revised plan will come under greater scrutiny now that the primary focus won’t be on fighting one element of the plan. That’s welcome as well. Constructive criticism in a timely fashion almost always makes community documents better, particularly when both sides agree they are working toward a common goal.
In follow-up comments after the vote, Wells noted that he was surprised that the vote wasn’t closer; that he had thought the commission had struck a balance, but obviously a vast majority of the town disagreed. We appreciate his candor and humility. What’s critical now, as the planning commission and town residents gather to determine just how to revise the land-use section of the town plan, is not to fall back into the role of adversaries.
Opponents of the plan should be gratified with the vote, but also humbled by Wells’ overture. Now is the time to drop the gloves, pat each other on the back for a good fight, and come together as a town to resolve this issue. A mediator, as Wells suggested after the vote, might be one way to do it, but we doubt it’s necessary. If the planning commission works with the majority to draft a plan that satisfies their goals, the former opponents will be allies in the renewed effort and the process will proceed with far greater congeniality.
That’s being very optimistic, but there is every reason for it.
Bristol lies in one of the most beautiful valleys in Vermont at the base of Deerleap and at the foot of the Bristol Wilderness with the trout-filled, sparkling clean waters of the New Haven River running on the edge of the downtown. It’s close enough to Burlington and Middlebury to be a bedroom community for either, has excellent schools, a thriving downtown, a forest and resource-based environment, and an abundance of recreational resources. The proposed town plan seeks to capitalize on those attributes. With a little fine-tuning and a collaborative process, the outcome could be stellar.