Bristol commission wrestles with language in town plan

BRISTOL — In its continuing effort to update the town plan, the Bristol Planning Commission on Tuesday dove into the “Resource Extraction” section of the proposed town plan and tore out a wide range of definitions from ensuing sections of the 120-page draft.
The plan has been a focus of attention as townspeople have debated the merits of a particular gravel pit proposal and sand and gravel extraction in general over the past several years. An application for gravel extraction by the Lathrop family has been the subject of litigation.
At Tuesday’s meeting, debate centered around two hot issues: a paragraph on property rights that commissioner Chico Martin sought to insert in the plan and the removal of definitions that certain residents felt would inhibit future legal proceedings over land use.
The definitions that the commission decided to remove from the town plan are the terms listed under “Industrial Uses” (on page 66 of the town plan draft that can be found at and the descriptions of the town zones (on pages 69-71).
Commissioners Martin and John Elder formed a subcommittee to reword the “Industrial Uses” definitions. As Elder put it, they will seek to reword the “qualitative distinctions” between industries without using the terms currently used — “Heavy Industry,” “Light Industry,” “Forestry Use,” “Extraction” and “Quarrying.”
Some residents at the meeting said they were extremely cautious about these omissions.
“Please don’t condemn us to endless litigation by lack of clarity,” said John Moyers, who explained that a lack of specificity and clarity in the town plan would result in enormous legal quarrels down the road.
“It’s fair to say, as John does, that any sentence that can be interpreted in more than one way can be used by lawyers to argue either position,” said Chairman Tom Wells, who is a lawyer. “However, it will happen. There is no way that we will be able to write a document that is not subject to (dispute). It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be reasonably clear in our words, but you cannot define this tight enough with the amount of paper that can be produced from all the wood in Vermont so that it can’t be argued over.”
Moyers also expressed grave concern that removing the descriptions of the town zones would inhibit the legal abilities of the town’s people.
In response to this notion, Wells after the meeting said, “The plan does not actually have a zone-by-zone statement as to what we want (a given) zone to have in the future. If it had that, (Moyers) and others who like to litigate about these issues can come back if there’s an inconsistency in the bylaws and say, ‘Well in the plan they intended such and such.’ Our plan is just a restatement of what’s in the present bylaws. It’s confusing because we’re heading towards something different … Is it good to restate (the zones)? It doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t really help anything.”
When the commissioners reached the extraction section of the plan, Martin proposed adding a paragraph that he said would better define the rights of private property owners, but was viewed by some community members as being worded in favor of extraction operations like the Lathrop pit. It sparked discussion between both commissioners and residents at the meeting.
“You’re talking about taking away somebody’s property rights — Lathrop’s. He doesn’t have those property rights (to extract gravel) until the results of this trial. He has no property rights to remove gravel on that piece of land,” said Bristol resident Randall Freeman.
Longtime commissioner Ken Weston explained that not everybody could have it his or her way.
“Zoning is the appropriation of certain rights,” he said. “But, in modern society everybody’s rights have to take some back door to the next person’s property rights … everybody loses a little bit of something … in modern society we can’t all have what we want.”
“The key is when we rezone a property, we’re taking the basic rules of what’s permitted or not and changing them,” said Wells. “I think the point that Chico is making … you have to be really careful about that.”
Martin clarified his intent in proposing an additional paragraph to the extraction section of the town plan.
“It’s a principal that the planning commission should work towards minimizing the impact of the proposed planning changes on the rights of private land owners,” said Martin. “I think we need to add some statement so that the town’s people understand under what condition we would go along with a taking (of resources such as gravel) and I think we should be careful about that … and I think people need reasonable guidance of what to expect in the future from the planning commission.”
The board agreed that clearer language regarding when extraction could be permitted in developing a property needed to be included in the plan.
“A reasonable interpretation of what’s presently (in the plan) is that (developers) can remove (resources) and they can sell” them when in the process of developing a property to help offset costs, said Wells. “You could inadvertently allow an extraction operation because so much (of a resource) needs to be removed.”
Martin’s paragraph was not added and the board agreed to allow Wells to draft language to prohibit a commercial extraction operation from popping up in the midst of a development for a different stated purpose.
In other news:
•  Wells said the soonest the town plan revision will be voted on will be in March 2012. Martin suggested at the meeting that the commission might postpone the vote until the November 2012 presidential elections because more people would turn out to vote. Either way, Wells said that the Bristol Town Plan will expire at the end of this year and the town will go without an approved plan for a period of time.
“I’m not convinced that it’s that big of a deal for us to be without a plan (for a period of time),” said Wells.
•  The planning commission is parting ways with consultant Smart Growth Vermont. According to Wells the function of that organization is going through a period of transition. Executive Director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission Adam Lougee will be the Bristol Planning Commission’s new consultant.
•  Wells suggested a public hearing sometime in September to discuss with local residents the finished town plan draft and gather public input.
•  After a draft of the new town plan is finished, the commission will return to one meeting a month.
•  The next planning commission meeting will be held on Tuesday, June 7, at 7 p.m. in Holley Hall.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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