Bristol selectmen send gravel rules to vote
BRISTOL — Hustling to meet a statutory deadline, Bristol selectmen on Monday chose to pass on to voters unchanged a proposed Bristol extraction ordinance that, if approved, would govern gravel extraction operations in the town.
Had the board opted to make even minor changes to the document, the ordinance would not have been eligible to head to a Town Meeting Day vote, when Bristol residents will also weigh a proposed town plan that has been four years in the making.
Monday’s public hearing was the first and last that the selectboard held to discuss the document, which the town’s planning commission has been drafting since last summer.
The hearing brought out several Bristol residents who braved the rain to voice concerns about the document, which many felt fell short of the tough restrictions they’d like to see leveled against the gravel industry in the town.
Many of the concerns were familiar ones, voiced at previously public hearings conducted by the planning commission. Some residents opposed the now explicit permission to conduct permitted gravel mining operations in the town’s conservation zone.
Members of the selectboard, as well as planning commission Vice Chair Chico Martin, explained the thinking behind including the zone in the list of areas where mining will be allowed with certain conditions. First, selectboard chairwoman Carol Wells pointed out, little gravel exists in the conservation zone in the first place, and the board was uncomfortable with the property rights implications of forbidding land owners from applying for permits to extract that gravel.
Also, much of the conservation zone is made up of state-owned land, which means extraction would be ruled out on those parcels.
Martin also said the planning commission was worried about setting a precedent of forbidding industry in the zone that could, in the future, be applied to activities like logging.
But the explanations did not placate some of the residents in attendance at the meeting.
“I don’t understand the logic,” said Bunny Daubner, a former member of the planning commission.
Bruce Acciavatti agreed.
“Timber is a renewable resource,” Acciavatti said. “This is moving earth. You’re going to be digging up the soil.”
Noise levels, too, rose to the forefront as a bone of contention. Slim Pickens pointed out that interpretations of the noise rules could mean that residential neighbors of pit operations could be subject to very loud noise — not to exceed 90 decibels at the property line — throughout the day.
The way the rule is written, noise at this level can not reach an aggregate total of more than 30 minutes a day, but Pickens worried that short, sporadic noises could become a constant concern for neighbors.
Nancy Gardner also weighed in on the noise front.
“I moved here because of noise,” Gardner told the selectboard, explaining the constant noise at her Westchester, N.Y., home drove her in part to relocate to Vermont.
Gardner’s concerns, John Moyers added a moment later, are in keeping with a national trend: According to Moyers, noise is the number one complaint voiced by residents polled by the U.S. Census Bureau.
“People are very sensitive to noise,” he said.
As the meeting wore on, concerns about enforcement also surfaced again, this time in regards to noise levels.
“Statutes don’t do the job. Enforcement does the job,” Pickens said, providing the example that if police weren’t on the road drivers would be more likely to speed more often. “This seems impossible to enforce.”
Martin explained that like many of the rules in the ordinance, the noise levels expressed a compromise from the different opinions of the commissioners.
That sense of compromise helped sway selectmen when, later in the evening, they considered whether to send the document to the town for a vote on March 2.
After the public hearing wound down, selectmen began to wade into editing: The board considered a few minor wording changes that could have alleviated fears raised by residents like Moyers about possible “loopholes” in the document.
But confusion about the statutory rules regarding these changes sent Town Administrator Bill Bryant headed for the books, and a look at the law revealed that the selectboard was free to make changes to the document — but only up until 14 days before the final public hearing on the ordinance
With Town Meeting Day just five weeks away, that statute meant the ordinance would not have been finalized and warned in time for the March 2 vote.
“So we either except it the way it is, or we throw our hands up and we do it at another time,” said Selectman Peeker Heffernan.
The planning commission has been voicing its preference for voting on the two documents simultaneously for months — and Wells pointed out that, if the Town Plan passed and the ordinance either flopped or was not up for a vote at all, the new plan might open up opportunities for mining under the old extraction ordinance.
The vote comes amid years of controversy over a proposed gravel pit near the village downtown area. That extraction project is still mired in the courts, and will be considered under the current town ordinances; the proposed regulations, regardless of whether or not they pass, would not apply to those deliberations.
In the end, the board decided to send the ordinance to a vote. If the ordinance fails to pass, the selectboard will be facing the same scenario it would have dealt with had board members elected to postpone a vote: another public hearing, and a special vote a few months down the road.
“My hat’s off to the planning commission,” Heffernan said. “I think they did a nice job on this. It’ll never be perfect.”
The full ordinance is available to download online at www.bristolvt.net.