High on the plateau above the New Haven River overlooking the village of Bristol rests a fertile 11-acre hay meadow with spectacular views of Deerleap Mountain, the Bristol Cliffs, Bristol’s downtown and views west toward the Adirondacks. With a thin row of trees bordering the meadow on two sides and high mountains at its back, the site is as picturesque as it gets in Vermont — and that’s pretty special.
But the purpose of a site visit this past Monday at this scenic location, wasn’t to admire the view and imagine the good fortune that 25 or 30 families might have if a residential neighborhood were established there in the distant future, or in the similarly sized wooded section that borders the meadow on the south side. Rather, the District 9 Environmental Commission held a public site visit to give its members, Bristol residents and others an opportunity to walk the site and learn the details of a proposed gravel pit that would excavate untold hundreds of thousands of tons of gravel for the next 35 or more years.
The questions answered during the site visit were of a technical nature: if the access road goes here, how will the traffic flow; what landscaping will be done to hide the cut into the woods; what will be done to mitigate the noise, gravel dust and visual scars to the land; where will the digging begin, how will it proceed? They talked about 200-foot setbacks and test pits and the steepness of access and egress roads.
But the central question of whether a conditional use permit should be granted to allow the significant parcel to be mined as a gravel pit or left, as some argue the town’s municipal plan suggests, as a residential area for future growth was not discussed.
It is, however, the question Bristol residents should reconsider in a public process.
This issue, in particular, is a matter best resolved by the democratic process because of two overriding factors: First, the language in the existing town plan could be construed as vague and needs the public’s direct input to clarify the matter; second, how this land is developed will directly affect the daily lives of Bristol residents for the next 35 to 50 years.
With that much at stake, one would think the town select board would direct the planning commission and the zoning board of adjustment to hold a public vote on the central question: should this parcel be granted a conditional use permit by town officials (which is essentially an exemption of its current residential/agricultural/light commercial zoning to an heavy industrial zone) to allow gravel extraction for the life of the pit, or should its current zoning be honored as drafted in the town plan without heavy industrial use?
Why is it important to pose the question to the public? Because the select board has a duty to ensure such significant town projects are done with the greater public good in mind.
When determining the public good, consider the pros and cons of the proposed project:
• From a development point of view, does the town reap more advantages from a gradual build out of residential homes and commercial office space, or more from a gravel pit?
• Would it be preferable, socially and economically, to have residences within walking distances to the village and schools, or traffic from trucks hauling gravel rumbling through the village?
• One estimate has the gravel pit generating about $30,000 per year in property taxes; a low yield compared to what even 10 residences would generate for a much longer time period. (One solution here is to raise the property value of the gravel pit to reflect the revenue generated, thus the community would benefit equally whether it was a gravel pit or a development.)
• Would a gravel pit add or detract from the town’s ambience and economic growth? The owners written testimony to the environmental commission suggests no new jobs (there are four existing) would be created. A large housing development of 20 or more houses (roughly 80 more people in town), on the other hand, would employ carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen, plus boost the local economy via the purchase of local goods at lumber yards, hardware stores, fuel oil, groceries and many other local businesses. (The county’s regional plan, by the way, predicts the need for 6,000 new housing units in Addison County by the year 2025, so it’s not a stretch to think 25-50 of those units could be in Bristol.)
• Finally, would a gravel pit there detract from Bristol’s idyllic setting and character, and negatively impact property values and the long-term quality of life in the area? Contrarily, would a housing development within walking distance to downtown and schools detract or add to the character of the village?
When town officials on the zoning board of adjustment and the planning commission seek to grant conditional use permits that skirt the town’s established development zones, then at the very least there should be a demonstrative public good for the exemption and town officials should not be ashamed to explain those benefits to town residents in a public setting.
If no public good can be claimed by town officials, and the only unspoken explanation for granting the conditional use permit is personal connections, then much harm is done to the confidence residents will have in town government.
At that point, it is the obligation of the select board members — the only town officials elected by the public — to step in with the one obvious solution to settle what is legitimately a townwide conflict: a public vote as soon as possible that is phrased in a way that clearly indicates how the parcel in question can be developed. That’s serving the community by letting the people who are going to live with this development decide the outcome.
Angelo S. Lynn