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Bristol’s revised zoning regs now up for vote: Updates expand opportunities for business, housing

BRISTOL — Bristol residents will weigh in on proposed new zoning regulations on Town Meeting Day. Article 20 will be up for discussion at Monday night’s annual meeting and voted up or down the next day by Australian ballot. The new regulations build on the town plan passed in 2012 and have been five years in the making.
“We’ve been trying to strike a balance on the one hand to conserve and enhance our compact village structure, which makes the town beautiful and walkable, and on the other hand to expand economic opportunities,” said Planning Commission Vice Chair John Elder, describing the goals of the revised regs overall. “This entire document has been forged from compromises. So nobody got everything they wanted, but we think that it’s clarifying, coherent and progressive.”
The proposed revised zoning regs build on the three planning areas at the heart of the Land Use section of the 2012 town plan: 1) village, 2) rural agricultural, 3) rural conservation.
The village planning area seeks to enhance Bristol’s walkable, compact village structure with more opportunities for both housing and small-scale businesses. The rural agricultural planning area supports agriculture, lighter density housing and light industry appropriate to the area’s rural character. The rural conservation planning area covers predominantly the heavily forested land along the Green Mountains on Bristol’s eastern side (and another small patch at the town’s northeast corner). This area includes both public and private land and supports a variety of uses.
“There’s a lot of logging in here and also some quarrying and some sand and gravel pits and so forth and recreation. It’s all in there — some preservation but a lot of use,” said Elder.
Overall the three planning areas are based on Bristol’s natural topography. The Green Mountains run along the town’s east, the village and agricultural planning areas are in the flat corridor that runs north-south to the west of the mountains.
“Bristol is a mountain town,” Elder said.
OVERALL GOALS
The revised regs take Bristol’s topography up against the Green Mountains on the east and its intact village center (Bristol has one of the state’s Designated Downtowns) and seek to preserve and enhance the town’s historical and natural advantages.
An important overall goal, said Elder and Planning Commission Chair Sue Kavanagh, was to simplify zoning. Where previously, for example, there had been six commercial designations there are now four.
Other overall goals of the new regulations include to:
•  Increase residential possibilities.
•  Preserve and enhance the downtown retail/restaurant area.
•  Increase economic possibilities across all zones.
•  Encourage clean light manufacturing.
•  Present zoning regulations in an better organized and easier-to-use format.
RESIDENTIAL EXPANSION
The new zoning map shows expanded residential areas to the north and south of the core village area. Residential density is encouraged on this north-south axis because of the natural topography, said Elder and Kavanagh.
Along with the High Density Residential zone is a new zone called Village Residential (which replaces the old Low Density Residential), which now spreads west along Plank Road (stopping before Burpee Road) and southeast of South Street into an area close to the downtown but formerly designated as rural agricultural.
Elder and Kavanagh emphasized that this helps create “compact dense infill” and prevents “sprawl.”
“We want our village to grow, and we protected the housing north and south,” said Elder. “We worked it out a little bit more with housing so that it would be more dense at the center but still pretty dense at the outside.”
Housing density varies from being densest in the High Density Residential zone to least dense in the Conservation zone. Lot size in the High Density Residential, Village Residential, and Rural Agricultural 1 zones is set at a minimum of 10,000 square feet. Minimum lot size in the Rural Agricultural 2 and RA5 zones is set at two acres. Minimum lot size in the Conservation zone is set at 25 acres.
COMMERCIAL EXPANSION
The revised regs seek to bolster economic opportunity, said Elder and Kavanagh, by expanding permitted uses within each designated zone from “approximately 56 to 83 now proposed.”
Both also said that the new regulations seek to support “clean light industry” across zones as appropriate.
For example, the new zoning map shows a new Village Mixed designation, which promotes “a mix of residential, commercial and light manufacturing  opportunities” near Bristol’s “walkable core.” This Village Mix zoning now expands this kind of mixed use into the area now being developed as the Bristol business park (behind the new fire station), as far south as Hewitt Road, and north in patches covering the now closed Bristol landfill.
On the south side of Hewitt Road a former RA5 area has been made RA2, allowing more development and more density.
The Rocky Dale area is now in a Village Mixed zone.
The rural agricultural zones (RA1, 2 and 5) spread north to south roughly along the Route 116 corridor. These zones encourage “continued agricultural use” but also permit a range of dwelling types and come with a range of conditional businesses.
Along with the expanded economic opportunities the revised zoning regs include a new Site Plan Review process.
“Because we added so many more uses, we felt it was necessary to help guide that development,” said Kavanagh.
Both added that Bristol would especially like to attract economic activities that add value to local agricultural and forest products.
FOUR CORNERS CONTROVERSY
While Elder and Kavanagh both stressed that revised regs were formed out of compromise, both regret the loss of a suggested overlay protecting the entrance to the village at the intersection of Routes 17 and 116, know as Daniels Four Corners. The overlay would have “imposed certain design standards and would have eliminated certain kinds of large stores,” said Elder.
“I regretted the selectboard taking away the Daniels Four Corners overlay district because I think that we do need to take special care to protect that entrance to the town but I still feel that the total package of regulations and plan coming forward is a huge improvement,” he said.
TOWN PLAN READOPTION
Alongside the revised zoning regs on the ballot is an article asking residents to readopt the 2012 Bristol Town Plan minus the 2012 zoning maps and references to them.
Explained Kavanagh, “Our concern was that if you had the zoning reg maps as they were in 2012 and our new zoning regs pass in March of 2017, they would be mismatched and it would be less clear how to proceed with planning or any kind of zoning permits. So the idea was to remove the maps and reference to the maps from the town plan. And the town plan still stands as a strong document without those references.”
Given that Vermont town plans must be voted on at least every five years, the readoption strategy gives Bristol an official town plan while the planning commission begins to undertake the work of revision.
Both Elder and Kavanagh emphasized how fortunate Bristol is to have preserved its walkability and its historic downtown center and noted how many towns are now trying to reconstruct what Bristol has preserved.
Looking forward to Tuesday’s vote Kavanagh added: “We are encouraging the greatest level of participation (in this decision). We hope people will take the time to understand what’s in it and to appreciate the detail and consideration that’s gone into what we see as an encouraging and positive document to guide Bristol.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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