Bristol tries new tack on planning

BRISTOL — After a tense start, Bristol residents on Wednesday night faced their neighbors, pulled out their maps, and began talking seriously about where and how gravel extraction should happen in a town still largely divided over the contentious issue.
The conversation was the second in a series of three forums designed to turn inside out the process of town planning in Bristol, marking an effort by the town’s planning commission to trade, for the time being, public hearings for round-table conversations.
“It makes a difference to be sitting and facing each other,” said Bristol Planning Commission member Susan Kavanagh. “This kind of gathering generates more conversation. It’s not just testimony or complaining or asking a question that doesn’t get answered. It’s having a conversation.”
The commission turned to this model — and to the help of professional facilitator Lisa Bedinger — after a decisive vote against the proposed town plan and extraction ordinance on Town Meeting Day. The town plan fell, by a margin of 598-364, and the extraction ordinance toppled in a 627 to 349 vote. The prevailing wisdom in Bristol is that the two documents were rejected because a majority of voters believed the regulations about where and how gravel extraction could occur were too lax.
The planning commission hopes to move fast in revising both documents; if all goes according to schedule, new versions of both the town plan and zoning ordinance could be up for a vote again in November.
The three town forums will play a large role in directing the planning commission’s next move. The hope, Bedinger told the 46 residents gathered on Wednesday night, is that any consensus at which the group can arrive will help the commission know how best to revise the town plan and ordinance.
Then, both documents will head back through the traditional vetting procedure, including a series of public hearings.
But finding consensus may be easier said than done. First, tensions are still brewing in Bristol over a long-standing proposal from Jim Lathrop to build a gravel pit off Rounds Road, not far from the village center. Lathrop’s proposal is headed for a June 28 Act 250 hearing.
Planning commission members and Bedinger were careful to frame Wednesday’s meeting with the explicit understanding that the conversation was about future rules, not any specific proposal.
But emotions are running high in the town because of the proposal. Lathrop, who was in attendance on Wednesday night, voiced strong objections at the beginning of the forum that two individuals — Kevin Harper and Jim Dumont — were in attendance at the meeting. Both are property owners in Bristol, but neither resides in the town or is listed on the voter checklist. Both have also been active in the fight against Lathrop’s proposed pit, with Dumont serving as legal counsel for a group of Bristol citizens opposing the operation.
“I should have known that I could have my lawyer here,” Lathrop said at the outset of the meeting.
After a brief disagreement, the small crowd in the Mount Abraham Union High School cafeteria put the question to a vote: Should taxpaying non-residents be allowed to stay, and participate, in the forum? The majority decided yes, and the meeting moved on.
Bedinger, meanwhile, urged residents to “give each other the benefit of a doubt.” Bristol is a special community, she said, adding that she believes strong disagreement is fueled by residents’ passion about what happens to their town.
The Lathrop proposal aside, reaching consensus on gravel mining will be complicated simply because of the diversity of opinions on the issue. That diversity was in evidence on Wednesday night, when residents broke into small groups to discuss the criteria for ideal resource extraction in Bristol, and possible boundaries for where extraction may and may not be allowed.
On one side, some residents — like Caroline Engvall — said the “ideal” would be no pits in Bristol at all.
Does the fact that Bristol has gravel, a valuable resource in the building trades, mean that the town should dig it up? wondered Engvall.
“If it were diamonds under the green, would we extract it?” Engvall asked.
On the other end of the spectrum, residents with vested interests in gravel extraction argued for leniency. One group — in which the Lathrop and his son participated in the conversation — said gravel should be allowed anywhere in town, with the understanding that state regulations alone would be strict enough to effectively regulate mining.
Likewise, gravel pit owners Diane and Francis Heffernan said Act 250 land use regulations are strict, and the town shouldn’t unnecessarily duplicate those rules. (To that, planning commission member Willow Wheelock raised the point that in order for Bristol to enforce rules, it needs to have regulations of its own on the books.)
Despite the differences of opinions, Kavanagh said the conversation was largely cordial. She joined Lathrop at his table for the small group discussion. They weren’t able to come to many agreements, she said, but they were able to speak civilly about differences of opinion.
The same was true of Harper and Dumont, who found themselves sharing at table with the Heffernans. The meeting culminated with an open invitation to come see the Heffernans’ existing pit — something Harper said he hoped would clear the air of some of the mystery, and fear, surrounding the industry in Bristol.
“It’s great to finally sit across the table and have this conversation,” Harper said. “I was feeling that there was a distinct lack of understanding among community members about what a pit even looks like, feels like, sounds like, smells like.”
Tentatively, the evening’s discussion built toward common ground: Several times residents proposed a radius around the downtown that would be free of gravel mining, with strict enough regulations in place that would allow pits while still ensuring that residents outside of that downtown core be protected from undue side effects.
For town residents — some of whom voiced frustration that their concerns weren’t heard during the months leading up to the Town Meeting Day vote — the meeting was a welcome about-face.
“The most frustrating aspect of this whole process has been this feeling like I don’t have a voice, like I don’t have any power, and this was empowering,” said Bristol resident Sue Small. “I hope it continues to be so.”
Like Bedinger, Small called for consensus. She found herself sitting at a table where some participants didn’t want to see any new gravel extraction in Bristol in the future at all. But, in the end she, said such a ban was unrealistic.
A resident of Hewitt Road, Small said she has tuned in to the fierce debate over the proposed Lathrop pit for years. She’s reluctant to issue ultimatums on the gravel issue.
“I don’t want to be in that position because then I don’t have any input on the alternative. I would rather assume that we’re going to find a compromise, and I want that compromise to reflect my concerns,” Small said. “I can’t be over here digging my heels in, and I don’t think the other side should be doing that either, because then they’re not going to be properly represented. Through compromise we all get represented.”
The third and final forum will take place on Saturday, June 5, from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Mount Abe cafeteria.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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