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Dueling philosophies in Bristol

As Bristol planners continue to refine their town plan, an interesting philosophical debate was broached at Tuesday night’s meeting. Commission member Chico Martin wanted to add a paragraph that specifically defended the rights of property owners and restricted any changes in zoning that might lessen the value of someone’s land, particularly as it pertained to gravel extraction. Long-time commissioner Ken Weston, on the other hand, noted that we live in communities under the assumption that we have to get along with our neighbors and that the overall good of the community necessarily compromises (at times) the singular rights of the individual.
In Bristol, these broad arguments have come to a focus over the ability of the Lathrop family to extract gravel in a zone that a majority of Bristol residents think should not be allowed because it’s too close to downtown and prior language in the town plan said as much (though a lawsuit by the Lathrops is challenging that assertion). The majority opinion in this matter was expressed in March at a Town Meeting Day poll in which two-thirds of town residents rejected the idea of creating a zoning district that would have allowed the proposed gravel pit. That’s important because regardless of whether past language in the town plan was vaguely written, it is indisputable that a vast majority of today’s residents are opposed to the idea and the new plan should incorporate that sentiment to the legal extent it can.
But the dueling philosophies, which date back to the dawn of civilization, are important to contemplate as well.
Martin, when clarifying his reason to limit property restrictions, was succinct: “It’s a principle that the planning commission should work towards minimizing the impact of the proposed planning changes on the rights of private land owners.”
The key word in this context is “minimizing” the taking of a supposed land value, and most residents are in agreement. But two qualifiers must be added:
First, the “taking” Martin refers to pre-supposes Lathrop had a right to develop the proposed gravel pit in the first place, and that is far from certain. In fact, the public would disagree with that intent, and a court will decide what was allowable under pre-existing language in the town’s existing plan.
Second, Martin’s reasoning is a double-edged sword. Allowing gravel extraction in a zone that compromises the land values of its neighbors is just as much a taking of their personal property rights as it is of the other. The hundreds of residents who oppose the gravel pit are concerned their property values will be demeaned because of the associated noise, dust, increased traffic, spoiled viewshed and proximity to their quaint but bustling downtown. So, yes, changes in the town plan should minimize the impact on property owners — but on both sides of that issue, not just for the larger corporate interests.
Caution must also be taken when revising language that puts the individual’s right above the rights of the whole precisely because it’s the community that typically represents residents against the dominance of a larger entity. Citizens should be vigilant that changes in the language don’t weaken their collective voice.
Certainly, the Vermont aesthetic has long been to preserve the sanctity of our villages. Industrial parks and landfills, for example, are built on the outskirts of town, not near the village center or in the midst of residential neighborhoods. Heavy industrial activity, such as mining or gravel extraction, is purposely prohibited in residential and commercial districts to prevent undue violation of the property rights of others and to promote the safety, comfort and symmetry of like interests. To protect those values, as Weston rightly notes, each person has to give up a little to gain the benefits of the communal (police protection, paved roads, schools, a nearby commercial district, etc.).
“Zoning is the appropriation of certain rights,” Weston said Tuesday night. “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…”
Put another way, when we agree to own property within the confines of a community, we inherently agree to give up the right to disregard our neighbors. We reject anarchy and we agree to abide by a set of common rules — from criminal law, to traffic signs, to zoning. Citizens that promote the common good, seek to cultivate a community that is stronger collectively than it would be as disparate individuals and they champion that cause. There’s an appropriate battle cry that applies: “United we stand, divided we fall.”
Both Martin and Weston have valid points, but in a community context Martin’s emphasis should be flipped: The goal of town planning is to cultivate a strong community and protect the rights of the whole, while minimizing any taking of an individual’s rights. Both can be done successfully, but let’s first agree that when we live in a community our first responsibility is to be a good neighbor.

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