BRISTOL — Debate over gravel extraction in Bristol’s conservation district burst into flames at the Bristol Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, where the commission disagreed over the meaning of the results of a public poll on gravel and sand extraction.
Despite the Town Meeting Day poll results that went in favor of prohibiting extraction, planners held their own poll at Tuesday’s meeting to decide whether to allow extraction in the conservation district while they work on a long awaited town plan update. They voted 4-3 in favor of permitting gravel extraction in the conservation zone while information on the land is gathered.
Commission members responsible for analyzing the poll results — which found that 69 percent of voters opposed extraction in Bristol’s downtown district and 58 percent opposed extraction in privately owned land in the conservation district — submitted their findings for planners to discuss (see related story).
There was a consensus among planners that they need more information about the conservation district before they draw new boundary lines in a town plan update. While the prohibition of extraction in the downtown district is a settled matter for the moment, some on the commission were reluctant to forbid extraction in the conservation district.
PUSHING FOR EXTRACTION
The push to permit extraction in the conservation zone was led mainly by two commission members: Chico Martin and Stan Livingston.
Their argument was three-fold: People are confused about the issue, extraction has been a part of Bristol and poses no health hazards, and only one side of the argument showed up to vote at the public poll.
Martin said voters are confused about the issue.
“In my opinion, it’s kind of a hysteria where you object to one thing and then generalize to object to all things that might bare some resemblance to it,” he said.
“To me I can’t understand how anybody could move to the town of Bristol and not expect there to be extraction,” he continued. “Of all the arguments that have been presented, there have been no claims substantiated that extraction would adversely affect the health of anyone in the community. What has been substantiated is that it’s a resource of limited supply and high value and that there is definitely an incentive for it to be developed.”
Martin then extrapolated from the March 1 selectman’s race between John “Peeker” Heffernan and John Moyers to assert that the majority of Bristol voters actually favor gravel extraction, despite the Planning Commission poll.
“If you look at the quantitative votes (from this year’s selectman race) carefully there were 467 people that voted for Peeker and 279 that voted for John Moyers. Peeker, very clearly, is not against gravel extraction in the town of Bristol and John Moyers is very clearly against gravel extraction.
“So, why is that big discrepancy not reflected in the polls that we took? I think that the reason is obvious: People who voted for Peeker didn’t fill out the survey.”
Livingston seconded Martin’s notion that those in favor of permitting gravel extraction simply decided not to take part in the public poll.
“My wife didn’t even fill one (poll questionnaire) out, I didn’t even fill one out. People that were for gravel extraction, most of them didn’t fill it out,” said Livingston.
He concluded that the poll was not accurate because residents opposed to extraction were the bulk of the community members who felt it worth their time to vote.
“We all bear a burden of responsibility in a democracy,” objected planner Willow Wheelock. “If you choose not to participate, that’s your choice. You can’t come down on the people that chose to participate.”
Planning Commission chairman Tom Wells mediated that discussion before adding his two cents.
“I’m really uncomfortable … to discredit the poll that we took,” he said. “I’m uncomfortable trying to say that it didn’t properly represent the people … It’s a democratic process that always isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we have. So, I want to be respectful of the data.”
Wells also said that he was uncomfortable making analysis based on extrapolations such as Martin’s.
The commission agreed that they need more information on the conservation zone to better understand where extraction should be permitted and where it should not. The question that stood was what to do in the meantime while the commission is gathering that information.
Martin moved that the commission permit excavation in all zones during this interim period, “general business, conservation — all zones.”
Since the conservation zone was the only zone in question, Wells restricted the motion to only the conservation zone.
Planner John Elder, who had previously supported excavation, said he would now not support excavation in the conservation zone because he wants the planning commission to be better informed before permitting excavation there.
Also switching positions was Wells, who previously voted in favor of excavation in the conservation zone.
“I’m not going to vote that way this time for the reason that is … we did take a poll,” he said. “I’m impressed that 60 percent of the people told us that they would rather we not excavate in the conservation zone … In the interim; since 60 percent of the people said, ‘Don’t do it;’ my feeling is that I’d prefer to prevent extraction in the conservation zone until we can study it … The survey sways me to go the other way.”
Martin took issue with impinging on residents’ rights to do what they please with their private property.
“I really feel strongly about taking away people’s rights before you have a stance to substantiate or anything else other than your personal opinion about something is really wrong for a public official,” he said.
Livingston seconded Martin.
“In the meantime, we shouldn’t take away their rights,” he added.
The poll to permit extraction in the conservation area while the commission studied the issue was taken. Martin, Livingston, Kris Perlee and Wheelock voted in favor of extraction, and Wells, Elder and Sue Kavanagh voted against the motion. Ken Weston abstained from voting and Bill Sayre was not present.
“Leap before you look,” called Moyers from the back of the room.
WHAT DOES THIS VOTE MEAN?
“Extraction is not permitted in the conservation zone and if anybody ever tells you that it is, pull out your copy of the town plan and your copy of the town zoning regulations and say ‘Show me where that’s allowed.’ They won’t be able to because it isn’t there,” said Moyers after the vote. “Nobody’s taking away rights. The fact of the matter is that people who want to excavate in the conservation zone don’t have that right now.”
According to chairman Wells, this vote is nonbinding and will be used to help the commission understand its prevailing stance on this issue. Acting as a compass, this vote will guide the language used in the commission’s final document that is the proposed town plan.
This vote has no present bearing on any regulation currently in effect, said Wells.
Before a plan is implemented, it must first go before the people of Bristol. The majority vote of the community will be the final judge of whether the town plan constructed by the planning commission is enacted.
“This poll is just our way of telling where we are along the way, recognizing that until it’s a final document, people are free to change their mind,” said Wells.
Nonetheless, the proposed town plan will certainly reflect intra-commission polls such as this one.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.