Bristol eyes contentious town plan vote

BRISTOL — The long-simmering issue of sand and gravel extraction in Bristol comes to a head on Tuesday when residents cast votes on a proposed update of the Bristol Town Plan and a new ordinance that would regulate gravel mining.
In a town gripped by the debate about gravel mining, the two documents — both of which would have implications for the industry in Bristol — have drawn heated debate among residents. The run-up to the vote has been marked by the same contention that has colored the debate about land use, gravel extraction and town planning in Bristol for more than four years.
The votes on the proposed plan and extraction ordinance will take place by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 2, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Holley Hall.
The most vocal concerns have come from residents worried that the proposed plan would open more Bristol land up to gravel mining, and that the extraction ordinance does not provide strict enough regulations for the gravel industry. Meanwhile, the Bristol Planning Commission, which drafted both documents, has repeatedly pointed to the plan and ordinance as examples of compromise between the town’s opposing factions.
The proposed town plan and extraction ordinance are both available to read in full at www.bristolvt.net.
WHAT IT IS: The proposed plan is a 110-page document sketching out a vision for Bristol’s long-term future, as well as the steps the town needs to take to achieve that vision. The goals include broader, sweeping ideals — such as, “Bristol will preserve its rural and agricultural character while it develops more business and light industry” — while others are more specific.
In addition to laying out goals for the town, the proposed plan also drills down into policies that the town should adopt to make these goals a reality.
For instance, in a section on housing, one of the goals in the plan stresses that housing in Bristol should be affordable to rent and own, and energy efficient to operate. Policies in that section include providing equal treatment and not discriminating against modular homes, mobile homes or prefabricated housing; encouraging the development of low-cost housing in close proximity to businesses and services; and allowing for the provision of “in-law” apartments as a form of affordable housing.
In addition to the section on housing, the plan also addresses population, utilities and facilities, transportation, energy, education, childcare, recreation, economic development, resources and land use.
This last section has generated the most conversation in Bristol, largely because its contents could have a bearing on a hot-button proposal for a new gravel pit near the Bristol village.
Unlike the current town plan, the proposed plan update leaves little room for ambiguity in terms of where gravel extraction would be allowed with conditions. Extraction would be forbidden, outright, in eight of the town’s 14 zoning districts. Extraction would be allowed, if applicants for extraction operations met certain conditions, in the remaining six zones.
The proposed pit project near downtown Bristol straddles two zones: In one of these zones, the MIX zone, mining would be prohibited. In the other, the RA-2 zone, mining would be allowed with conditions.
WHAT IT COULD REPLACE: The current town plan, by contrast, is just 11 pages long, and was adopted in 2001. This town plan is brief by Vermont standards. State law requires that town plans be updated every five years, and the current plan was adopted again by Bristol voters in 2007 after the planning commission determined that more time would be needed to draft a new one.
The current plan’s position on gravel extraction is open to interpretation: Opponents to the proposed town plan argue that the new document would open up more parts of Bristol to gravel extraction than are currently allowed. Members of the planning commission have argued, though, that the current plan is too vague in terms of where mining is or is not allowed, and some legal interpretations of the current plan have argued that under current regulations mining could potentially be allowed at any location in the town.
WHAT IT IS: The proposed extraction ordinance, if approved by voters, would become part of the Town of Bristol Zoning Bylaws and Regulations.
The 15-page ordinance was drafted with the help of a consultant, who used examples of other extraction ordinances from throughout Vermont to show the planning commission what other towns have done. The extraction ordinance spells out very specific rules about how applicants should apply for permission to open a gravel pit, and regulations about noise, hours of operation, and reclamation, among other categories.
Opponents have voiced concern that the extraction ordinance does not level impact fees on gravel pits. Members of the planning commission have said they feel it would be unfair to single out one industry for impact fees, and intend to take a broader look at impact fees on a town-wide, and industry-wide, level in the future.
Opponents have also worried that the ordinance does not set noise limits at a reasonable level, and might open the town up to “loopholes” that could pave the way for extraction operations.
WHAT IT WOULD REPLACE: The current version of the zoning ordinance, is much briefer than the proposed ordinance, and steers away from specific guidelines in favor of broader rules. The ordinance says that, in any district of the town, sand or gravel extraction will be permitted only after conditional use review and approval by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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