By CYRUS LEVESQUE
BRISTOL — After a heated public discussion at a meeting Tuesday evening, the Bristol Planning Commission decided to readopt the existing town plan, which expires in December, rather than try to complete an update that has rekindled debate over gravel pits in town.
“It’s clear now that we can’t get done by Dec. 27,” planning commission member Tom Wells said. He added that the commission will continue to work on the update and try to have a new town plan ready by next summer. “We should commit ourselves to a deadline on this,” he said.
The commission’s vote to readopt came after a 15-minute public comment section at which seven citizens were each given two minutes to speak. Some opposed the language in a draft of the land use section of the town plan revision the commission is working on, some spoke in favor of it.
The meeting drew an unusually large crowd, which Bristol resident John Moyers had encouraged in a newspaper ad printed last week. Before the meeting he had circulated excerpts of the proposed changes to the land-use section in order to compare them to the original.
“I think some of the changes are significant departures from the town plan,” Moyers said.
Wells stressed that public comment on the proposed plan was premature. He said the changes to the land use section were only proposals he had submitted in draft form. They are “just Tom Wells’ ideas, which haven’t even been discussed by this board yet,” he said.
Some commission members, including Wells and Chairman Peter Grant, claimed that public input has rarely produced new facts or arguments, so more opportunities for public input besides the usual segments at the beginning and end of the planning commission’s regular meetings was unnecessary.
“I don’t want to have constant dialogue with the public on this, because it would take the entire five years. We’d never get done,” Wells said.
Moyers stayed until the end of the meeting to use that public comment period to express his frustration with the amount of input the commission was taking.
Some on the board agreed that public input should be fit into the process more, although others felt that it was premature at this stage of the process. In response to previous requests for a back-and-forth dialogue between the commission and community members, the board agreed that at their Nov. 28 meeting they would include time for talk. The board was careful to say that would not be part of the public hearing itself for legal reasons.
LATHROP PIT NOT AFFECTED
Some at Tuesday’s meeting wanted to know if any changes to the town plan in the future would affect the controversial Lathrop gravel pit proposal, which was approved by the Bristol Zoning Board of Adjustment in 2004 but has faced legal challenges to opening since then, or several other active pit operations in Bristol.
All such places would be considered existing pits, so new regulations or changes to the town plan would not affect them unless they tried to significantly change their operations, according to town administrator Bill Bryant. If projects like the Lathrop pit were explicitly forbidden in a new town plan but the Lathrops win their court battle, the pit would be allowed as a grandfathered use.
Wells also said the new plan would not directly address the Lathrop gravel pit. “It would be highly unusual for a plan to address a specific issue.”
The old plan was used to support arguments regarding the pit, such as the Environmental Court ruling in March that the proposed pit did not conform to the town plan. But Wells said that wanting to support one side or the other had nothing to do with their decision to extend it. “The only reason we would readopt it would be because we aren’t done,” he said. “If we were forced to vote on the Lathrop pit, I honestly do not know what we would vote, because it’s not our job.”
Town plans are not required, but most towns have them for a number of reasons, including the clarity and public guidance they bring to the process of town development. If a town does choose to have a town plan, there are a number of state requirements, including that it be renewed every five years. Bristol’s current plan was passed on Dec. 27, 2001, so the deadline for revision or readoption is fast approaching.
However, revisions will not be completed in time. Commission members have said that the process was delayed partly because they first had to decide how they would adapt to Act 115, a 2004 state law that influences many aspects of land use and environmental law.
The town plan must ultimately be adopted by vote of the selectboard. If the board votes to reject it, or if the planning commission had decided not to readopt it, it would be a problem but not a disaster. “Nothing terminates, we just lose any rights going forward,” Wells said.
The expired town plan would stay in effect until something else was voted and approved. In the meantime, the town would not be able to make changes to the bylaws and could not apply for certain types of state grants.
Some members of the commission were opposed to setting a deadline for the changes at all.
“We have been under plenty of pressure this year toward a deadline already. We’re missing that deadline because we want to do it right. By setting another deadline, we are possibly going to face the same issue,” said Jim Peabody, commission member and former commission chair.
But in the end, the commission voted that the new plan should and could be ready by next June.
The Nov. 28 meeting will be a public hearing on the current town plan in order to advise the selectboard on readopting it. The hearing is scheduled for Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. in Holley Hall. After that, it will be up to the selectboard to vote on whether to adopt the plan again.