Bristol residents spar over business park

BRISTOL — The future of the Bristol Works business campus hangs in limbo as Bristol town officials grapple with an official zoning classification for the property.
Owners of the property at the corner of Bristol’s Munsill Avenue and Pine Street plan to use the 5.5-acre site to host a range of uses, including office space for the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, a prospective health center, and manufacturing space for energy technology and value-added food products.
At its meeting Tuesday evening, the Bristol Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) discussed whether special conditional use permits were required for the various uses planned for Bristol Works.  Zoning Administrator Bill Bryant had asked the ZBA to make the ruling due to a change of use from its prior tenant, cosmetics manufacturer Autumn Harp.
Attendance was bolstered after an anonymous letter was circulated earlier this week to Bristol residents urging townspeople to denounce the project and halt it before a zoning permit was issued.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, an energized crowd of more than 50 showed overwhelming support for the project. The four partners who own Bristol Works — Kevin Harper, David Blittersdorf, Kim Smith and Robert Fuller — presented their business plan to the board and the public.
Working closely with the town as they’ve developed this campus, the partnership has invested millions of dollars and the building already has some tenants.
With a divided board, the ZBA on Tuesday approved for permitting the office and health facility portions, but ZBA members said they would discuss the manufacturing facility at their next meeting on Sept. 13.
The primary problem that some members of the ZBA found with the project plan was that there wasn’t enough information provided to define the conditional uses of the facility.
“You’ve got to have some parameters, so (the campus) doesn’t get out of control and I understand that,” said Harper in an interview  on Wednesday. “What I now understand is that the ZBA is helping us to define the conditions for traffic, noise and air quality. And we can do that. I think we’re all on the same page. We need to add definition to our plans on the manufacturing side and we’re more than willing to do that.”
“I made the call that I felt that it was a change of use from solely light industry to a mix of light industry, offices and a health center all of which are allowed uses in that zoning district,” said Bryant. “Conditional use gives the board of adjustments the power to review certain aspects of a project such as parking, traffic flow, noise, fumes and odors. Anything that could be a nuisance to the neighborhood.”
Although various manufacturers have used the facility for more than 100 years, never before has such a multifaceted group of tenants been proposed on one property at one time in Bristol.
The only fear Harper expressed about this review is that he doesn’t want to have to consult the ZBA every time a prospective tenant entertains the idea of filling a vacancy at the complex. He feels it would hold up potential transactions and will subject the private enterprise to undue public scrutiny, potentially killing business.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Harper doesn’t think the ZBA would require such action and is optimistic about the next meeting, he said.
Furthermore, Bryant indicated that the project wouldn’t trigger Act 250 because its industrial use predates the law.
Dozens of Bristol residents showed up at Tuesday night’s meeting to offer support for the project, touting its benefits to the town.
“Perfect preliminary evidence of where this is going. Proper number of parking spaces. The addition of jobs in Bristol. This is a perfect use of the building. I do not think that we can sit here and precondition preconditions,” said ZBA member Bob Stetson at the meeting.
“I live on … Munsill Avenue right across from Kevin’s business,” said long-time Bristol resident Rita Brown. “We built our house in 1966, and we’ve seen the worst of that place and now we’re seeing the best. Thank you, Kevin, for making it better.”
Kelly Hamshaw said she is a young professional who is tired of commuting to Burlington every day and would love to find a job in Bristol. She thinks Bristol Works will bring those jobs.
“I really look forward to the day when I can work in Bristol,” she said.
Darla Senecal, director of the Bristol Recreation Department, also see improved opportunities thanks to Bristol Works.
“I have lived in Bristol for 27 years and I’ve been fortunate enough to work in Bristol for the past 10 years … and I can tell you that there is a definite change in my buying patterns when I live and work in my community,” she said. “The work coming in (through Bristol Works) I think is something that Bristol needs to (welcome).”
Carol Wells, selectboard member and director of the Bristol Downtown Community Partnership, is charged with the task of improving the town’s economic vitality. She expressed her strong support for the business campus.
“Bringing in good-paying jobs to Bristol is really important,” she said. “I think there’s enough creativity and energy between the owners and the board to resolve this issue. We don’t want to lose the prospect of having this development in our community.”
Despite the anonymous letter writer’s attempts to rally Bristol residents to halt the permitting of Bristol Works, the only staunch opponent of this project that spoke on Tuesday was Jim Lathrop.
“I find this application to be woefully weak,” Lathrop said, stating that it lacked information and that the map wasn’t as accurate as it could be.
Lathrop said his chief personal concern is that increased traffic would impinge upon him at his West Street residence. Community members opposed to Lathrop’s proposed South Street gravel pit — the status of which depends on a court case slated for fall — have made the very same argument against him, stating that such a project would produce an abundance of truck traffic.
Furthermore, Harper has opposed Lathrop’s gravel pit in the past, a point that planning commissioner Chico Martin was quick to point out in front of Tuesday’s crowd.
 “Kevin … it occurs to me that there is some irony that you would not be subject to the same procedures that you’d ask others to be subject to. For instance, I’d like to point out gravel extraction is permitted on this particular parcel. Obviously that’s something that you’d want to enforce,” said Martin. “The fact that this property falls under a conditional use mixed-use zone should not be construed as a blank license for you to circumnavigate the processes subject to everyone else — subject to Lathrop.”
When asked about this accusation in a later interview, Harper said that he was under no illusion that he would be given a “blank license” and made it clear that he is willing to place regulations on the property.
“The real opportunity for the community and us the developers is to agree on a set of parameters that are controllable that we can all live with: the neighbors, the town officials, the developers and the tenants,” said Harper.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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