Bristol town plan heads toward March vote
BRISTOL — A public hearing in Bristol this week on the proposed Bristol Town Plan returned to familiar ground: the hot button issue of gravel extraction.
The public hearing, hosted by selectmen at their Monday evening meeting, marks what was likely the final public hearing for the plan. The selectboard is set to make a few small changes to the plan at an upcoming meeting, at which point selectmen will likely OK a warning for a public vote on the town plan come Town Meeting Day. The hearing wrapped up more than four years of work the Bristol Planning Commission poured into drafting a new plan.
“The planning commission has really worked hard on (the plan),” said selectboard Chair Carol Wells after the meeting, stressing that the planning commission is made up of a diverse group of individuals, “from liberal to conservative and from pro-pit to anti-pit.”
“They’ve worked for four years to come up with a compromise document,” she said. “I think it’s time now to let the voters decide.”
Monday’s hearing boiled down to some oft-repeated criticisms of the plan that focus on some residents’ concerns about opening up parts of the town to gravel mining. In some cases, though, such criticisms came coupled with a dose of praise for the commission’s hard work.
“They’ve done a heck of a job,” said business owner Kevin Harper. “It’s 1,000 times better in most cases than the existing (plan).”
But Harper’s applause was tempered by his concern about the plan’s land use section, specifically the planners’ decisions to include the conservation zoning district on the list of areas where gravel extraction, with conditions, could be allowed in the future.
“Why the heck is it in here?” Harper asked, pointing to the language that defines the conservation zone as falling under the town’s most restrictive zoning rules. “How is this compatible with gravel extraction?”
Harper also took issue with the fact that some other zoning areas, like the Rural/Agricultural-1, RA-2, and RA-5 zones, are similarly open to gravel extraction. He said that he felt like there was a “disconnect” between the plan’s intentions and the extraction rules.
Here, selectmen countered with their opinion. Wells explained that the board’s decision to keep certain zones open to possible gravel mining boiled down to boardmembers’ reluctance to infringe on property owners’ rights. What if, she asked, someone found a small pocket of gravel on a piece of this land in an area where a pit would go all but unnoticed?
This, argued Bristol resident Andy Jackson, was a case of the “tail wagging the dog.”
“All of our property rights are subject to regulation, regardless of whether it’s in one district or another,” Jackson said. “If you created a conservation district with its purpose to maintain natural beauty … you’re riding roughshod over that by putting in an industrial use … It flies in the face of the purpose of (that district).”
As the evening wore on, Bristol resident John Moyers added his voice to the debate, contending that the new plan would “basically greenlight” a controversial proposed pit operation near the Bristol village. Moyers said he thought that both the planning commission and selectboard sensed this would be the outcome, should the plan pass, and that there’s been a “lack of candor” on behalf of both boards.
Later, Jackson raised concerns about just who would be making planning and development decisions under the new plan.
“What you’re saying is, ‘We’re going to open this up (to extraction), but of course we’re going to protect our people through this process of the (Zoning Board of Adjustment),” Jackson said. “For each one of those developments, we are left to our efforts to get up and make sure that that development doesn’t happen in a place where it shouldn’t.”
Jackson said the new plan would “kick back” development decisions to the ZBA, instead of letting the entire community weigh in. He recommended that the selectboard send the plan back to the planning commission, who Jackson said should narrow its definitions, be clear about where mining may or may not happen, and then let the voters make a final decision.
But planning commission Chair Tom Wells said the commission has already done just that.
“We’re kicking it down the street, if you will, after we very carefully thought about where gravel extraction might be appropriate and where it wouldn’t be appropriate in town,” Tom Wells said.
Tom Wells said that, whether or not one agrees with where the commission has drawn that line, it’s time for the plan to head to voters.
“There is obviously a disagreement,” he said. “There are those who feel that gravel extraction should be permitted in a great many places, and there are those that feel it should be allowed virtually nowhere. The point is, the planning commission has thoughtfully made a recommendation as to where we think it should be allowed … If (the voters) disagree that it should be allowed in this area, they can vote it down.”
There, Harper disagreed. The next step, he pointed out, doesn’t have to be the voters.
“I’d ask you to take all that you’ve heard into serious consideration and reach deep inside yourselves to determine whether this is right, because there may be a few things that really need to change,” Harper said. “I know you’re up against the clock. I know you really want to get this thing passed. But if there’s something that needs to be changed and it’s got to go back and they’ve got to do it and we get bumped past voting day — so be it. We’ll have a special vote or wait ’til next year. You guys are the last stop to get this right. Beat it up. Kick it around. Really think about it. Because I’m not convinced, personally, that we’re quite there yet.”