Bristol town plan shaping up, but critics warn language is vague

BRISTOL — As the new Bristol town plan quickly takes form, the Bristol Planning Commission on Tuesday continued to grapple with the level of detail necessary to pass and implement an effective plan.
Commissioners and residents have debated for weeks how specific they need to make the language in the draft of a new town plan. Individuals on both sides of the long-running debate over whether gravel extraction should be permitted in certain town zones have called for more detailed language.
“We do have to go into more detail,” said commission Chairman Tom Wells. “We will have to do that when we do the rezoning.”
But numerous residents have said they want more detail in the plan itself, so that the town will have a larger influence over its destiny.
“We will lose local control” if it doesn’t include specific language, warned town activist John Moyers at Tuesday’s meeting. “I urge you to please put the specifics in this.”
The reason that residents are concerned about losing control is because the town plan holds more weight in Bristol than it does in some other towns.
Addison County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Adam Lougee told the Independent that “the state has more control versus local control” over development in Bristol because the town does not have subdivision regulations. Generally, a review under Act 250 — the state’s land use law — is triggered by applications to create a commercial or industrial development of 10 or more acres  or to create a residential development of 10 or more units, Lougee explained, but in Bristol the threshold is much lower.
“Anything over one acre is subject to Act 250 in Bristol for commercial industrial development,” said Lougee. For residential developments, the Bristol line is generally drawn at six housing units. If Bristol had subdivision regulations, it would “have exclusive discretion over developments under 10 acres” and residential developments less than 10 housing units, said Lougee. But it doesn’t have those regulations and so that right to review larger developments is passed onto the state.
Here is where the importance of Bristol’s plan comes in.
When a development triggers an Act 250 review, the law requires a District Environmental Commission to hold a hearing. The law states that “before granting a permit, the district commission must ensure that the development or subdivision meets” 10 criteria. Criteria 10 of Act 250 mandates that the development up for review must comply with “any local or regional plan.”
“That (Criteria 10) is really the avenue for the town plan to come into play,” added Lougee, who will consult with the Bristol planning commission as they develop zoning ordinances in the fall.
Wells responded to Moyers’ comment about specifics included in the plan in a separate interview after the meeting.
“He’s right,” said Wells. “If there was a particular issue where the plan unambiguously stated something about the position that a person wants then it’s clear for the courts. But, it’s an impossible standard. You could never have no ambiguity to the plan and no litigation … there’s going to be times when the town feels very strongly about something, like (sand and gravel) extraction where they state very clearly (what they think), and then there are things that are not as clear … you just can’t be that specific about everything.”
As far as the town plan not providing specifics for every section, Lougee explained, “That’s typical.
“The town plan is generally meant to be a visionary statement and a guide for the town. The fact that sometimes it serves as a regulatory document for Act 250 … makes it a little bit more difficult because vision statements are generally broader. You’re looking to establish goals (with a plan) and then action items that you can be more specific with.”
It’s logical to include specific “action items” in zoning ordinances, said Lougee.
“Zoning ordinances are intended to implement the plan,” he said.
But he noted that the plan must be specific enough to delegate certain responsibilities to zoning ordinances or committees.
In other news at the meeting:
•      Commissioners John Elder and Chico Martin, who had formed a subcommittee to eliminate the definitions under “Industrial Uses” on page 66 of the current town plan draft available on the town’s website (www.bristolvt.net), submitted their revisions. Elder and commissioner Willow Wheelock will iron out this new language over the next two weeks.
•  Moyers stood up at the meeting and read from Title 24 Chapter 117 Section 438 of the Vermont Statutes, which states: “A plan for a municipality shall include … a land use plan, consisting of a map and statement of present and prospective land uses … and setting forth the present and prospective location, amount, intensity and character of such land uses.”
He particularly emphasized the word “prospective” because he feels that the planning commission is not properly accounting for future land-use issues. Elder replied that he thought the commission was “trying to be clear” about future issues, but Wheelock empathized with Moyers and agreed that the commission should be a bit more forward-thinking.
•  Planning consultant Brandy Saxton of Place Sense attended the meeting and provided input on data and language used in the plan. Wells explained that she would be compiling data for the plan, formatting the document and adding a third-party perspective.
She provided numerous data sets to the planning commission surrounding items such as population, personal income and housing numbers. But she found some deficiencies in the statistics. For example, entrepreneurs aren’t accounted for in the labor statistics she provided from the Department of Labor and mobile homes aren’t included in housing statistics. Since the commissioners agreed that the data was still useful, they backed Elder’s motion to include qualifiers for the data presented in the plan.
Commissioners will review Saxton’s revisions to the plan and discuss them at the next meeting on June 21.
•  Saxton and Wells also brought up the idea of a development review board (DRB) in Bristol.
“Under the DRB format all applications, whether it be for subdivision or variance or conditional use, everything would go to the DRB. Now some go to the planning commission and some go to the Zoning Board of Adjustments,” explained Wells.
“Under the DRB process, it would look at everything and the planning commission would just plan,” added Lougee. “Since they don’t have subdivision regulations currently in Bristol, it won’t be that dramatic of a change.”
The DRB would review development outside of the state’s jurisdiction and if subdivision regulations were in place, the town’s jurisdiction would be greater.
•      Commissioners were adamant on Tuesday that a strong, working definition of the phrase “off-site impact” be developed.
•  Since the plan is presently too congested with revisions, the commission has yet to release an updated rough draft.
“We can’t even follow it right now,” said Wells. “It’s too convoluted to put online.”
After the next meeting, however, Wells promises the public an updated version of the town plan draft on the town website.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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