Bristol, listen to your citizens
The Bristol Planning Commission’s 4-3 vote last Tuesday to temporarily allow gravel extraction in the town’s conservation districts is a slap in the face of town voters who, just four weeks previously on Town Meeting Day had rejected gravel extraction in conservation districts by 69 percent to 31 percent. That’s no small margin, and yet four members voted to reject that public sentiment based on seriously flawed reasoning.
Planning Commission Member Stan Livingston makes the absurd statement that the polling results weren’t valid because neither he nor his wife filled out the survey nor did others who supported gravel extraction. “My wife didn’t even fill one (poll questionnaire) out; I didn’t even fill one out. People that were for gravel extraction, most of them didn’t fill one out.”
What evidence does he cite? None. It is an uninformed, unsubstantiated claim that attempts to lend authority to a viewpoint that no known facts support. Not only is it an irresponsible statement for a public official to make, but that he regards the democratic process so little that he didn’t even take the time to participate in the poll — and then belittles the effort of the 69 percent of town residents who did — might make some residents question his suitability for public office.
Livingston’s weak argument is, ironically, undercut by fellow planning commission member Chico Martin who, in another leap of irrational thought, concludes that because a majority of Bristol residents voted for John “Peeker” Heffernan in a race for selectman over John Moyers that the majority then also favors gravel extraction in all parts of town.
Had Martin given the issue a moment of thought, he might have considered that a majority of Bristol residents chose Heffernan over Moyers not solely based on either candidate’s views on gravel extraction but because Peeker is a long-standing community resident, fire chief, and member of many town organizations (the types of activities in which public support is built) whereas Moyers is a relative newcomer to town (a decade compared to generations for Heffernan). Furthermore, Martin might have as easily assumed that residents may have preferred Peeker’s leadership on concerns other than gravel extraction — particularly since the issue around gravel extraction is a very small fraction of the stuff selectmen will consider in any given year.
And then for Martin to also state that the people who voted for Peeker “obviously didn’t fill out the survey” is not only unsubstantiated, but is a disservice to voters who may have voted for Peeker, but who also voted against gravel extraction in the town’s conservation zones.
Martin goes off the deep end when he then suggests that while the planning commission is further studying the issue for adoption in the town plan, that the commission permit excavation in all zones during this interim period (until the new plan is approved), including “general business, conservation — all zones.”
Does that make any sense? Would Martin have gravel extraction be allowed right next to Main Street, next to the elementary school, in residential areas? Is there no place that Martin thinks is not appropriate for a gravel pit and gravel crushing with which comes heavy truck traffic, noise, dust and air pollution and unsightly development for the next 50 years? And, if so, how many residents would agree?
While Martin and Livingston defied the public poll conducted by the commission (and every previous poll on this issue — all of which have shown the public firmly opposed to gravel extraction near the town center or in conservation districts), Planning Commission Chairman Tom Wells stood by the democratic process and the results the commission found.
“I’m really uncomfortable … to discredit the poll that we took,” he said to his fellow commission members at Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m uncomfortable trying to say that it didn’t properly represent the people… It’s a democratic process that always isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we have. So, I want to be respectful of that data.”
Wells also rebuffed Martin’s specious extrapolations and conclusions as something that he could not be comfortable supporting.
“I’m impressed that 60 percent of the people told us that they would rather we not excavate in the conservation zone… In the interim, since 60 percent of the people said, ‘Don’t do it,’ my felling is that I’d prefer to prevent extraction in the conservation zone until we can study it.”
Interestingly, Wells and planning commission member John Elder, both of whom had previously supported extraction in conservation districts, reversed their previous support and voted against granting any temporary extraction in the conservation districts precisely because of the survey’s findings.
The only other argument made by Martin and Livingston that has any credence is the concern of “taking away a right of a private landowner.” It’s an argument used by developers when they want to argue that their personal rights supersede those of the larger community; that their private gain is more important than the public good.
Put that way, almost no one will argue that one person’s private gain has more political weight than the good of the whole; and yet, the argument is rarely confronted in those terms. Fortunately, the vote last Tuesday is nonbinding and carries little significance in fact. It does, however, signal to Bristol residents that they have a problem when commission members reject