Selectboard weighs in on Bristol pit
BRISTOL — In a heated meeting of the Bristol selectboard on Monday night, residents on both sides of a contentious gravel pit debate pressed selectmen to make their opinion known as the proposed Lathrop gravel pit heads toward an Act 250 hearing in late June.
In the end, selectboard members voiced their personal opinions about the proposed pit that has divided residents of the town for more than a half-decade, but left the meeting uncertain about how best to weigh in as an official party in the upcoming hearing.
Bristol resident Jim Lathrop has been seeking permission to build a gravel pit on his 65-acre parcel off Rounds Road since 2004, when he first applied for a conditional use permit.
Since then, though, the project has been waylaid at several turns: Though the town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) approved Lathrop’s 2004 applications, Bristol residents opposed to the pit appealed the decision to the state Environmental Court. Lathrop in 2007 filed a separate, modified application, but the ZBA rejected Lathrop’s request, a decision Lathrop in turn appealed.
Any decisions at the Environmental Court level have been postponed until a decision is made about the proposal’s status vis-à-vis the Act 250 land use law.
Residents at Monday’s meeting opposed to the pit urged the selectboard to take a strong stance against the pit in the upcoming Act 250 hearing, arguing that the board had an opportunity to speak up on behalf of residents who voted down the proposed town plan and extraction ordinance at Town Meeting Day.
In fact, those votes weren’t even close. The town plan was defeated 598-364 and the ordinance proposal went down 627-349, with voter turnout much higher than usual.
Many residents in town believe the votes reflected a majority opinion that the proposed Lathrop pit would allow extraction too close to the core downtown.
In a draft letter to the Act 250 commission hearing the Lathrop case, the board commented on a few of the Act 250 criteria, saying the pit could detract from the town’s scenic beauty and board members made known their preferences about traffic patterns if the pit is approved. The letter also made note of the Town Meeting Day vote, and the widely held view that the majority of Bristol voters did not want to see gravel extraction near the village center.
According to some residents, the letter didn’t go far enough.
“We need to have you folks step up to make a choice,” said Bristol resident Andy Jackson. “(This is) quite honestly a very mild response.”
Meanwhile, proponents of the pit argued Monday that the town vote shouldn’t be used as evidence of how Bristol feels about gravel mining. Diane Heffernan pointed to an ad in the Addison Independent paid for by the group Smart Growth for Bristol shortly before Town Meeting Day. The ad, she said, relied on fear mongering and “scare tactics” to confuse voters about what the upcoming vote really meant.
Lathrop argued that the selectboard shouldn’t add to the debate.
“Act 250 is coming next, and it’s going to be decided by a non-biased, professional board from the state of Vermont,” Lathrop said. “They will sort out the facts.”
Individually, members of the selectboard came down on different sides of the issue. Selectman Carol Wells said she thought the board should take a more forceful view to represent the will of the voters, saying she had great respect for the democratic process.
Meanwhile, Selectman Peeker Heffernan said he was concerned that the debate about the pit had been twisted from the beginning, and that in his opinion the pit wouldn’t be completely detrimental to Bristol. He said the results of the Town Meeting Day vote couldn’t be solely linked to the Lathrop pit, because both the proposed town plan and extraction ordinance were large documents with many moving pieces.
Selectboard chair Alan Huizenga, like Heffernan, said he believed the pit might not be bad for Bristol. He pointed out that Act 250 rules are strict, and that he expected the site would be highly regulated.
Meanwhile, Selectman Joel Bouvier advocated for a fair and balanced approach.
“This has divided Bristol right in two,” Bouvier said. “I think the letter just states the facts. It doesn’t say our opinion. We all have one.”
He likened the Act 250 process to acting as an umpire at a ball game, and said it was time for a group outside of Bristol to weigh the case and make a decision. On that count, Selectman Sharon Compagna agreed.
Not everyone at the meeting felt similarly. Bruz Brown urged the board to consider making a stronger response.
“There are times when as a board that you need to stand up and be counted and on behalf of the citizens of Bristol take as strong a stand as you can,” he said. “I’m not sure that your letter did that.”