BRISTOL — At a meeting of the Bristol Planning Commission Tuesday evening, a large crowd of Bristol residents sought clarity from commissioners on several parts of the draft 120-page town plan update — particularly with regard to specifics on the Conservation Zone.
Some townspeople particularly questioned the commission’s April 5 vote to allow sand and gravel extraction in the Conservation Zone, which they pointed out ran tangential to the results of a Town Meeting Day poll that found 58 percent of the public opposed it. Others said the definition and future of the Conservation Zone in the town plan is too opaque.
In addition, some said the town plan lacks clear language to prevent future disputes and improve public participation.
A parade of local residents fired questions and concerns at the members of Bristol Planning Commission, reminding them that the town plan holds heavy legal weight and strongly influences the role of public participation.
Bristol residents on both sides of the extraction debate raised issues about the clarity of language used in the draft plan.
Jim Lathrop proposed that in addition to improving the plan’s clarity, the commission should also create a site-specific ordinance for his land. The parcel has been the center of a years-long controversy over whether Lathrop and his family should be allowed to mine sand and gravel so close to downtown.
“This board needs … some site-specific guidelines for this piece that’s been so troublesome,” Lathrop said.
Planning commission chairman Tom Wells said such spot zoning was not allowed.
“We’re never going to draft ordinances that are site specific because that’s not appropriate to draft new limits for every given site,” he said.
Wells reminded everyone that the town plan is supposed to act as a visionary document that helps guide policy.
But, later in the meeting, John Moyers challenged Wells’ claim that the plan is just a visionary document and added to the debate for clearer, more specific language, explaining that it is crucial to the public process.
“To me (calling it a visionary document) really sells short what the town plan is,” Moyers said. “If you want people in Bristol to have a say about what the town is going to look like and what kind of development we want and what kind of development we want to stop … those details need to be in the plan.”
He then pointed out that the plan is not just a visionary document, but a document with serious legal weight, particularly with regard to Vermont’s Act 250 land use law.
“When it comes to Act 250, specificity in a plan is the only thing that gives citizens the ability to participate in the Act 250 process,” Moyers said.
Residents were especially concerned with the commission’s previous 4-3 vote to permit extraction in the Conservation Zone while a resource study is conducted. Wells previously explained that the vote was non-binding, but did admit on Tuesday that the decision would help steer the language of the town plan.
“It seems like during that (planning commission) meeting (on April 5) that the opinion of the board is contradicting the opinion of the public,” Bristol resident James Cole said to the commission.
“It was my understanding … that (the public poll) was going to be used to help guide the writing of the new regulations. Is that still true even though as a board you may not reflect what the public wants you to do?” asked Susan Small of Bristol.
“(The public poll) was never binding. It was to guide the board,” Wells responded. “And it did influence some board members like me to have a different position, but not all.”
Commissioner Kris Perlee explained that the poll was taken into serious consideration by the board, and commissioner John Elder added that the board would return to the issue again.
“Defining votes are yet to come,” he said.
When residents indicated that they were confused about both the definition of the Conservation Zone and what the commission was planning to do with the land while a proposed resource study is conducted, commissioners explained that they were revisiting the zone’s definition.
“The problem is that the Conservation Zone isn’t necessarily all full of property that is truly environmentally sensitive,” said Wells.
Perlee added, “The word conservation is not necessarily the right term for that entire parcel of land. A lot of times conservation and preservation are used interchangeably and they’re very different terms.”
One of the “primary distinguishing characteristics” of the Conservation Zone, as Wells explained, is that it only permits one dwelling unit per 25 acres.
But, Bristol resident Andy Jackson pointed out that residential conditions are not the chief focus of this zone.
“It’s the purpose of this district to protect those areas of the town which have shallow soils, fragile or limited vegetation valuable for watersheds and the like,” he said. “So, maybe there are certain areas that should not be included in that, but the purpose of the conservation district is to protect or conserve.”
The board confirmed that this statement was true and Perlee clarified the board’s position.
“We’re really looking at possibly redefining that area to determine what needs to be hyper-protected and what needs to just fall under that one (residence) for 25 acres,” he said, pointing out that there are some areas that need protection not only from extraction, but from development in general.
Cole asked the commission what would happen to someone who invested in an extraction project in the Conservation Zone — in the event that the current vote to permit extraction during the resource study carried through to the town plan language and was voted in by residents — if a proposed resource study found three years later that this person’s operation was extracting in a place that had a serious negative impact.
“Can you just tell someone to drop it?” he asked.
Wells indicated that if these circumstances applied, such an operation would not be shut down.
“Certainly anything already started would clearly have a grandfathered right,” he said.
In other business at the meeting:
• Commissioners made a number of provisional revisions to the plan that they said will later be revisited. Perhaps most notable was the deletion of the final sentence under “Conservation Area,” on page 64, which stated: “It is important to understand that the Conservation Zone … is not a ‘preservation area,’ nor are all parts of it environmentally sensitive … with careful attention to restrictions and conditions, extraction can be permitted in this area.”
Since the commission is looking to redraw the Conservation Zone’s lines, the board indicated that more specific language on this issue would likely appear at a later date.
• Wells told the board that he has contacted both the Bristol Conservation Commission and the Addison County Regional Planning Commission to obtain a variety of maps to get a better understanding of the Conservation Zone. The planning commission, however, will not be able to use data from the 2010 U.S. census until next year when it’s released.
• Moyers expressed concern that commissioner Bill Sayre had a conflict of interest because part of Sayre’s occupation in the logging industry allegedly involves selling land in the Conservation Zone.
• Jim Heffernan of Bristol expressed concerns about the rising waters in the New Haven River, which he fears may ruin local farm land.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at email@example.com.