BRISTOL — By a nearly two-to-one margin, Bristol residents this week sent a crystal clear message to the town’s planning commission: It’s time to head back to the drawing board when it comes to the contentious town plan and gravel extraction zoning ordinance.
That message had been broadcast by a few vocal town residents at a series of public meetings and hearings over the past year, but those opponents were joined on Tuesday at the polls by hundreds of supporters. The town plan fell, 364 for to 598 against, and the extraction ordinance toppled in a 349 to 627 vote.
The opposition to the plan and ordinance swelled amid concerns from Bristol residents that the plan may allow gravel mining in too many parts of the town. At the heart of the issue was also a deep-rooted fear about how the plan might affect the proposed Lathrop gravel pit — a stone’s throw from the Bristol village.
The proposed pit project near downtown Bristol straddles two zones: In one of those zones, the MIX zone, mining would have been prohibited in the proposed plan. In the other, the RA-2 zone, mining would have been allowed with conditions. That distinction, opponents argued, was paving the way for the Lathrop pit’s approval, which is mainly located within the RA-2 zone.
“The vote strongly reiterates what townspeople have said since the very beginning,” said John Moyers, a Bristol resident who, along with the “Smart Growth for Bristol” group, campaigned against the proposed plan. “We don’t want any changes to the town plan and zoning that would allow the Lathrop pit. We want the town and the village protected from heavy industry. If the planning commission and selectboard wouldn’t hear this clearly before, they can’t fail to get the message now.”
Moyers was one of several opponents to the town plan who spoke up at the annual town meeting on Monday night, outlining his reasons for voting “no” on both articles. Complaints about the town plan centered on the gravel issue, and concerns about the extraction ordinance included the absence of impact fees as well as noise regulations some voters felt were insufficient.
Others, like Claire Wallace, worried the town’s vote on Tuesday would be uninformed after the planning commission had moved ahead too quickly. Opponents argued that town-wide communications from the planning commission — including a 11th-hour mailing about the proposed town plan — had been biased and unfair.
A few residents spoke out in favor of the plan, urging neighbors to consider that the plan was about more than the hot-button gravel issue. Merle Knight pointed out that there was no way the entire town would come to agree about the document, and the imperfect plan marked a step forward for Bristol.
In the end, though, the assembly’s applause went to those residents who spoke out against the town plan.
The planning commission took the meeting as a chance to explain their reasoning, and chair Tom Wells was quick to say that the voters’ will at the ballot box would determine the planning commission’s next step.
“What the planning commission has attempted to do is to balance the concerns of property owners who have gravel on their property, and all of us who use gravel … against the overall concerns that we all have as citizens,” Wells said.
They did that, he went on, by drawing a line in the sand: Gravel mining would be allowed with conditions in certain areas, and forbidden in others.
“One could argue that we’ve drawn the line in the wrong place,” Wells said. “If the voters feel that way and vote that way, the planning commission will go back and work on that.”
When all was said and done, though, Wells said he was surprised in the wake of the vote.
“I thought it would be close,” he said. “I thought that the planning commission had come up with a fair balance. Obviously, the majority of the voters don’t agree.”
But voters like Vickie Greenhouse pointed out on Monday night that Bristol isn’t “stuck with the old plan.” Bristol voters could simply vote down the proposed plan, she said, make the changes they’d like to see, and come back to this matter in a few months.
In fact, that looks to be exactly what will happen.
Wells said that the planning commission wants to give the public a chance to “fully voice their concerns about the plan and the extraction ordinance.” They hope to have a public hearing sometime in the next month or two, and are considering bringing in a facilitator or moderator to help calm what has been a divisive debate in Bristol.
If all goes smoothly, Wells said he hopes an improved document could be on the table for voters to consider again at the September election.
“We want to open up and listen,” Wells said.
Kathryn Flagg is at firstname.lastname@example.org.