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Bristol residents demand clarity in new town plan

BRISTOL — Most of the roughly three dozen people at Holley Hall Monday evening for the Bristol selectboard’s first public hearing on a new draft of the town plan showed overwhelming support for the general vision of the proposal. Nevertheless, a range of fundamental changes were proposed.
The selectboard will consider these proposed changes at its May 21 meeting, and likely will hold two more hearings, selectboard chairman John “Peeker” Heffernan said.
He expects the board will make significant changes to the document, which under statute would require the board to hold two further public hearings before voting on it. The selectboard hopes to present the town plan to voters at the General Election in November.
At Monday’s meeting, the most frequently suggested change to the draft was to obviate ambiguity by taking the words “should,” “would,” and “it is anticipated” and replace them with “shall” and “will.” Numerous residents have repeatedly made this suggestion over the past year.
“Throughout this document it really ought to be in present tense,” said John Moyers, a Bristol resident and town plan activist. “Clarity is our friend. Clarity is what gives us local control. A lack of clarity means it all gets settled by lawyers and judges outside of our control.”
Bristol entrepreneur Kevin Harper took issue with the future tense as well.
“What are we saying here? And why are we afraid to say, ‘will prohibit’?” asked Harper. “This is too futuristic … Why are we talking about what we might do or would likely do or want to do in the future in the areas where we can be specific?”
Bristol resident Russ Rueger added to the conversation.
“Anything we can do to close up ambiguities and make concise language and say what shall and will be done is just going to help us all in the future,” he said. “Anytime you leave something open to interpretation, people will interpret it as they will desire, and it might be against what the town wants.”
Another major issue raised by townspeople was that a section in the plan gives extra legal weight to policy statements in the plan, which seems to take power away from other parts of the plan.
The part of the plan that would give these statements their power is under the title “Interpreting the Plan.” It states: “In certain settings, such as during Board of Adjustment hearings or Act 250 proceedings, policy statements should serve as the basis for determining a project’s conformance with the plan. While other sections of the plan, in particular the narrative sections and goal statements, provide useful context for understanding the policies, it is the policies alone that serve as the final statement regarding the town’s position.”
Bruce Acciavatti, former chair of the Conservation Commission, suggested that a central component of the town plan — prohibiting extraction in the downtown Village Planning and Rural Conservation zones — be added to the policy statements at the end of the land-use section.
Moyers suggested that everything in the town plan should carry legal weight and that the portion of the plan that gives policies extra weight should be removed.
“I think everything in the (town plan) ought to come into consideration when there’s an Act 250 hearing on a given development,” he said. “Nothing in the town plan is a throwaway — it’s all good — so why limit what counts in the town plan to just those things under policies?”
Meanwhile, other alterations and concerns voiced at the meeting included:
•  Harper’s qualm with ambiguous language in paragraphs four and five on page 53, which he feels obscures the clear definitions of light and heavy industry and may lead to legal issues over the extraction prohibition zone.
“Why 100 pages and this huge section on extraction when the core of that — what is heavy industry and where is it allowed — is made ambiguous by these statements?” he asked the board. “I think the intent is there, it’s just I think we fell short on being really clear on the places that matter the most.”
•  Jodi Lathrop’s concern that her home on Rounds Road would be redesignated as part of the Conservation zone. Her unease led to the board’s realization that there are inconsistencies between maps in the plan draft. Lathrop was assured that her property would not be placed in the Conservation zone, and the board is working with the planning commission to reconfigure the maps so that they match.
•  Jason Lathrop’s issue with the proposal that land hosting his family’s company Lathrop Forest Products be rezoned as Residential. When planner Kris Perlee, who was in attendance, explained that the Lathrop wood-chip production operation would be grandfathered in, Jason Lathrop said that his family didn’t want to be grandfathered in, they wanted to be in correct zoning. Since this zoning issue isn’t a part of the plan, but rather a part of the zoning ordinances that the commission is currently working on, the board reassured him that the plan wouldn’t affect the company. Perlee told Lathrop to contact him about the issue.
•  Moyers’s desire to change the last paragraph on page 52 so that it doesn’t use the term “large-scale commercial endeavor,” which isn’t defined in the plan. He also recommended that the same statement include verbiage that requires developers to have local and state permits for selling surplus material extracted from an area that is being developed for commercial or residential uses.
•  Harper’s problem with goal five of the land-use section on page 55. It states, “Property owners will be protected from a government taking for the use of the public without fair compensation.”
Harper called the statement purely political.
“So the … town is going to defend a land owner who, for whatever reason, the state … and the feds are going to declare a taking for a piece of property for public use, and we’re going to go to bat for them? What is that other than pure politics?” he said. “It’s nothing you can stand behind. It’s expensive to put a lawyer on the job … how are you going to put a goal in your town plan that says we will protect you from a government taking. It is ridiculous.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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