Commission begins Bristol rezoning effort

BRISTOL — Imagine what Main Street Bristol will look like 10, 20 or 50 years down the road. Now imagine what the downtown area could, or should look like and one will come close to the task that the Bristol Planning Commission has been assigned.
On Tuesday, Bristol planners sat in the conference room of the temporary town offices trudging their way through piles of color-coded maps and complex terms while deciphering the subtle differences between definitions like “Village Mix” and “Village Business.”
The planning commission has begun the arduous process of redrawing and redefining the Bristol zoning districts. Tuesday marked the first in a series of five meetings — each will correspond with five new zones that Noelle Mackay, a consultant from Smart Growth Vermont, helped the commission pin down last spring.
But there’s no discussion of the difficult issue of gravel just yet — at this first session, the group launched into the first and smallest new zone, “Village Business,” that is comprised of the Bristol Village core, stretching from the edge of the park and Howden Hall to Basin Road on the other side. Currently this section of the village is zoned as a combination of “Block Commercial” and “Neighborhood Commercial.”
Mackay on Tuesday walked the members of the planning commission through her notes and suggestions for the new Villlage Business zoning district’s lines, objectives and guidelines, dimensional and design standards, and definitions of uses.
Throughout the process, she encouraged feedback and discussion from the planning commission and also welcomed questions and input from the half-dozen townspeople who trickled in and out over the course of the meeting.
Planners and Mackay want to make the re-zoning process as collaborative as possible with feedback from Bristol taxpayers every step of the way. Once they have waded their way through the five zones, the planning commission will host a public forum slated to take place after the holidays, according to acting vice-chairwoman Sue Kavanagh.
Those interested may also view proposed district maps and regulations on the Smart Growth Vermont website, under the Bristol link. Mackay will be updating the documents as the planning commission moves forward.
The going was rough on Tuesday — the group spent over two-and-a-half hours hashing out the details of “Village Business dimensional standards, and barely made headway into the permitted uses of properties within the zone.
“But we’ll get into our groove,” Mackay assured the group.
Details like height restrictions, road setbacks and maximum building footprints made for slow going, and Mackay only managed to get through dimensional standards before the meeting was adjourned.
Among the decisions made after debate on Tuesday was a requirement that new buildings in the Village Business district must be between two and four stories tall.
Planners agreed with Mackay that the discussion of permitted uses for Village Business properties could be left for their next session.
“Your homework is this for next week,” she told planners. “The balance that you have to create when looking at standards is that balance between specificity and flexibility. If you’re too vague, it does not stand up well.”
Planners seemed to have the opposite problem on Tuesday — every minute detail required a conversation.
The conversation will continue at the Nov. 2 meeting, and the public is invited to join and give feedback. All of the zone standards and restrictions that planners are working with will remain in draft form until the town presents its plan to the voters next year — which means everything is subject to change.
“We’ll plow through as much as we can with Noelle’s guidance,” Kavanagh said. “Then we’ll open it up for some input and feedback while we’re doing this work for each of these meetings.”
Tamara Hilmes may be reached at [email protected].

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