Bristol forums to take on town plan, gravel

BRISTOL — Pull up a seat, residents of Bristol: The planning commission is inviting residents back to the table as the board reopens the contentious proposed town plan and extraction ordinance knocked down by voters on Town Meeting Day.
As members of the commission prepare to revisit the two planning documents, they’re bringing in outside help to mediate what at times has been a divisive debate about the future of development — in particular, gravel mining — in the town. The commission has scheduled three upcoming town forums, each to be moderated by an impartial facilitator, to discuss in as open an environment as possible the concerns that persuaded a majority of voters to reject the town plan and extraction ordinance on March 2.
“It’s all about wanting to get full and complete input from the citizens,” said planning commission chair Tom Wells.
Bristol voters by a nearly two-to-one margin rejected the town plan and extraction ordinance that the commission and selectboard sent to a vote in early March. Before the vote, Wells said that he hoped the plan would eliminate ambiguity about gravel mining in Bristol by drawing a line in the sand: Gravel mining under the proposed plan would have been allowed in some areas with conditions, and outright forbidden in others.
In the run-up to the early March vote, Wells said the voters’ response would be the litmus test as to whether the planning commission had charted a fair compromise.
Meanwhile, some residents repeatedly raised concerns about where mining would have been allowed under the new plan, and voiced unhappiness about the absence of impact fees and strong noise regulations in the zoning ordinance.
Now, Wells said that though the planning commission at one point considered these concerns a “minority view,” the March vote made clear that an overwhelming majority of Bristol voters were unhappy with the proposed plan.
“We got the message,” Wells said. “The board worked really hard to come up with what we thought would be a compromise, and we missed … We should listen longer and harder to any other views so that we get it right this time.”
The three forums are scheduled for Saturday, May 22, and Saturday, June 5, from 9 to 11 a.m., as well as May 26 from 7 to 9 p.m. All three meetings will take place in the large cafeteria at Mount Abraham Union High School, and will include childcare and refreshments.
Professional facilitator Lisa Bedinger will be leading the meetings, and will be assisted by Kim Harry, a master’s candidate in mediation at Champlain College. The planning commission secured around $2,000 from the town to cover the cost of the meetings.
In an about-face from public hearings, members of the planning commission will participate in the upcoming meetings as “citizens just like everybody else,” Wells said.
That’s good news, according to Susan Kavanagh, one of two new members on the planning commission. She and John Elder were appointed by the selectboard after town meeting. The new members are filling the seats that previously belonged to Peter Grant and Tim Eaton. (Wells and Chico Martin, whose terms were also up, were both reappointed.)
Kavanagh said she put her name into the hat because she wanted to join the conversation about gravel mining in the town in a more formal capacity. Now she’s pleased to see the planning commission changing tack in their conversation with the town about the heated issue.
Public hearings, she said, can be very stiff and formal, and tend to lack a back-and-forth conversation. The forums will in many ways be the antithesis of that format.
“I’ve been impressed with (the commission’s) openness, and their interest in trying again in an inclusive and perhaps different way,” Kavanagh said.
Now, the planning commission’s short-term goal is to pull in as wide a cross-section of town residents as possible for the upcoming forums.
“To me, it’s an opportunity for as many voices as possible to take part,” Kavanagh said.
After the three meetings, Bedinger will be condensing the conversations into a report for the planning commission. The central issue, according to Wells, will likely be establishing the right boundary for where gravel may or may not be mined in Bristol.
Stepping back, the commission’s big picture goal calls for a fast turnaround on changes to the town plan: The commission hopes that it could have a new draft of the plan ready for voters on Election Day in November.
“This, to me, is progress. I don’t know where it’s going to end up, but these gestures are real, positive movement,” Kavanagh said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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