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Bristol planners dig into mining law, draft town plan

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By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — Front and center at Tuesday’s meeting of the Bristol Planning Commission was the first draft of new rules that would revise Section 526 of Bristol’s zoning ordinances, the section dealing with the extraction of earth resources like gravel, sand, soil, or quarry stone.

The proposed mining regulations were culled from similar ordinances in other Vermont communities, and given the large number of such rules the draft as it stands now should be viewed as “over-exhaustive,” said commission chairman Tom Wells. Though Wells stressed Tuesday that the proposal would be whittled down to fit Bristol’s needs in the coming months, the ordinance nonetheless had some local gravel pit operators up in arms over mining restrictions perceived by some to be too strict.

The planning commission has expressed an interest in allowing extraction of such material in some areas in Bristol on a conditional-use basis, possibly in the Rural Agriculture 1 (RA-1), Rural Agriculture 2 (RA-2), Rural Agriculture 5 (RA-5) Conservation, and Mixed Use districts.

“We have differences of opinion on some aspects of (extraction),” Wells said of the Planning Commission, “but to a person, we all agree that gravel extraction should be allowed in Bristol. Exactly where and under what circumstances — that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

The town planners hope once these regulations are approved by Bristol voters, the ordinance will erase uncertainty about where and how mining operations can take place in the town.

The commission hopes the mining regulations will appear before voters at the same time as the draft town plan, which does not specifically address the contentious issue of resource extraction but instead voices support for extraction “at least in limited areas in Bristol,” while recommending mining only occur when it can be done in a matter that takes into account issues like public health, safety, and town aesthetics.

The 10-page extraction ordinance, on the other hand, would outline specific rules governing mining, including blasting restrictions, boundary setbacks and buffers, noise and lighting control, hours of operation, dust and emissions, and reclamation.

Wells said Tuesday that the earliest draft of these regulations — a copy of which was circulated to some gravel pit owners in Bristol for their opinions — was pulled together by New York-state consultant Brandy Saxton to include all of the different regulatory frameworks that have been used in other Vermont communities.

Now, the commission is left to tweak or whittle down those restrictions as they see fit. By and large, Wells said, the commission supports extraction in some places in Bristol but not all, and intends to allow gravel as a conditional use in many of the town’s zoning districts.

At the Tuesday evening meeting, though, gravel pit owners balked at the draft regulations on the table, expressing concerns that the rules were so strict that they might make mining impossible in the town.

“I really feel that this draft will end extraction in Bristol, and we’ll be forced to go to other towns to get our product,” said Diane Heffernan, who owns a Bristol gravel pit with her husband Francis. “It affects not only excavators, but it will increase the cost of materials, the cost of delivery, the cost of construction, and it will raise our taxes.”

She voiced concern that the setback rules were too strict, pressed for more lenient blasting regulations, worried about how rules allowing some operations to be “grandfathered” would be interpreted.

“The draft needs more work, in my opinion,” Diane Heffernan said later. “It’s fine to have experts, but we shouldn’t accept dream plans that make it impossible to live with the regulations.”

Jim Lathrop, who is still in the process of applying for a permit to operate a gravel pit in Bristol, voiced similar concerns.

“Every one (of these regulations) is exorbitant … This is totally unworkable,” Lathrop said, brandishing the ordinance. He added that many of the regulations are more stringent than conditions required under Act 250, which governs land use and development in Vermont.

Selectman John “Peeker” Heffernan, Diane Heffernan’s son and an excavator in Bristol, said that on the first read he came away from the regulations wondering why the town hadn’t simply drafted an ordinance banning gravel extraction altogether. The regulations, he said, would effectively do just that if approved as now written.

“I think that gravel is a necessity, and they’re not making any more of it, so we need to make sure we have provisions so that we can get it from where it is. I feel very strongly about that,” Peeker Heffernan said.

Wells repeatedly assured the gravel pit owners on Tuesday that it is not the commission’s intention to drive anyone out of business, and said the idea behind circulating the draft ordinance to these individuals was to collect expertise on what regulations might be reasonable.

“We need your help understanding how to write an ordinance that is fair,” Wells said. “We’re not trying to put people out of business, nor are we trying to make it impossible for anyone to open a pit in the future.”

The planning commission will take up discussion of the extraction ordinance again at its July 21 meeting.

The draft is available to the public at the Bristol town offices.

PUBLIC HEARING

In other planning news, the planning commission will convene again in two weeks, this time upstairs in Holley hall for a public hearing on the latest draft of the Town Plan. The meeting will not include any discussion of the draft extraction rules.

In a June 16 meeting slated for 7:30 p.m., the commission will take testimony from Bristol residents on the contents of this latest draft, a 107-page document that the commission sees as a visionary document for growth in Bristol.

The draft marks the first major revision of the town plan in Bristol’s history, and if approved will replace a nine-page document.

Wells said he expects the Planning Commission will make a few changes to the draft in the wake of the upcoming hearing — but soon after he hopes the plan will head off for the selectboard in the next step toward its eventual adoption.

The selectboard will then conduct at least two more public hearings as they consider the plan, but eventually the document — like the extraction ordinance — will head before Bristol voters for a final decision.

“I would guess that this would probably go to the selectboard now,” Wells said. “We’ve made a lot of changes.”

Wells said that by now the commission has made most of the major changes that residents suggested — though in some case the board weighed suggestions but ultimately chose not to include changes in the draft.

“I think it’s really a much improved document. … Is it a perfect document? No, it’s still got a ways to go. But it’s as good as we can do,” Wells said, adding that he thought the time had come to consider passing the document off to the selectboard in the coming weeks.

The commission pulled together this latest draft plan after sifting through verbal or written comments at the commission’s last public hearing in January. Among the most significantly revised sections are those dealing with energy and conservation, which the commission reviewed in joint meetings with the town’s energy and conservation committees.

Among other recommendations, the latest draft encourages energy independence; proposes an investigation of the hydropower potential of the New Haven River and Baldwin Creek; promotes Bristol as a potential “pilot town” for new energy policy, resources, and efficiency and conservation measures; and encourages energy cooperatives.

The commission also tweaked the section dealing with resource extraction, spelling out more clearly zoning areas in Bristol where mining would be prohibited. The new draft also includes a disclaimer, though, that this list of zoning districts “should not be considered exhaustive as to areas in which extraction will not be permitted and nothing in the Plan should be considered conclusive as to where extraction will or will not be permitted.”

Wells said that the commission will not respond to questions directed at the board during the public hearing on June 16, and that the meeting is instead designed to take public comment on this latest draft. However, he encouraged Bristol residents to submit any specific questions to the board in writing before the hearing, which he said would allow the commission time to formulate their answers.

Copies of the latest draft of the plan are available at the Bristol town offices, and online at www.bristolvt.net.

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