By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — In a public hearing on Tuesday to discuss the draft of a new Bristol Town Plan, Bristol residents had one consistent bit of advice for town planners: it’s all in the details.
In a meeting that deviated from plan to include an unexpected question-and-answer period (see story, page 16A), residents again and again told the planning commission that while they appreciate the work that has gone into the 107-page plan so far, they worry that the current draft is still too vague for their liking — particularly on the hot-button topic of resource extraction.
Rejecting the commission’s notion that details on extraction belong in a new zoning ordinance — which the commission is drafting — many residents asked that the draft plan be revised to offer more specific guidance on where mining could or could not take place in town.
“Specificity and clarity will only help make this document a better fit with the community of Bristol,” Peter Diminico told the commission early in the hearing, which was attended by roughly 40 people. He pressed the planners to consider adding an additional public hearing, a town vote, or a community envisioning session to the process before sending the draft to the selectboard.
“Resource extraction has continued to divide this vibrant community,” he continued. “The risk of this plan not passing through a majority vote may cause more harm to the community of Bristol.”
Diminico’s call for specificity cropped up often over the course of the two-hour hearing, and typically focused on the section of the plan devoted to resource extraction.
Currently, that section prohibits resource extraction specifically in seven of the 10 downtown zoning districts, but is silent on the issue in the MIX, RA-1 and RA-2 zones. The plan does issue a disclaimer on that front: “Although the zones above have been identified, this list should not be considered exhaustive as to areas in which extraction will not be permitted and nothing in this Plan should be considered conclusive as to where extraction will or will not be permitted.”
But that disclaimer isn’t enough for some residents.
In relegating the details of resource extraction and development to zoning ordinances instead of the town plan, Bristol resident Andy Jackson said he felt the board was “dodging this issue” in a “failure to step up to the plate.”
“The town plan is just that — the town plan,” Jackson said. “It is a plan, not an agreement to make a plan in the future.”
In leaving details about gravel extraction out of the plan, Jackson went on, the commission is ultimately preparing an “incomplete” plan — something Bristol resident Slim Pickens mentioned in his own testimony.
“The board continues to refuse to address the most important issue facing Bristol at this time. Of course, I’m referring to resource extraction,” Pickens said. “This board has written a plan that lacks specificity regarding resource extraction and weakens our protections in the MIX and residential zones by allowing the possibility of heavy industry. This is absurd.”
Pickens also added that, without specific language in the plan governing resource extraction, Bristol residents in the future would lose local control over development plans. That same concern prompted John Moyers’s comments as the evening wound to a close. The details matter, Moyers said.
“Put the relevant details … in the plan. When it comes to Act 250 deliberations, the plan is the only thing that empowers the townspeople to have a say in the state permitting process,” Moyers said. “If the town plan is silent … we are without tools to participate as citizens.”
Though the purpose of the evening was to collect public testimony on the latest draft of the town plan, planning commission Chair Tom Wells did take time toward the end of the hearing to answer some questions from residents. But on the topic of specificity in the plan, Wells’s answer was an unsavory one for the residents who pressed for more clarity.
“We do not believe that level of detail belongs in the visionary document,” Wells said, citing again the zoning ordinances as the best place to regulate mining operations.
It was an opinion that made some residents at the meeting bristle slightly at the terminology.
“I think (visionary and specific are) not mutually exclusive,” Jackson said, returning to the microphone. “It’s disconcerting to say, ‘We decided not to be specific because we wanted to be visionary.’”
MUCH ADO ABOUT MIX
In another much-talked-about topic of discussion on Tuesday evening, several residents pressed the commission to consider implementing stronger restrictions on heavy industry in the “MIX” zoning districts.
Two of these districts — one near South Street, and another surrounding part of Pine Street — are nestled near the center of the Bristol village.
It was a discussion touched off by a flyer circulated in Bristol early this week by Smart Growth for Bristol, a citizens’ group concerned about the expansion of heavy industry and resource extraction in the town.
The flyer, which was produced by Moyers, included an map of zoning districts with an outline of a “core village,” and statements like, “The new Town Plan would allow mining and heavy industry where it is now discouraged or prohibited, including MIX, RA-1, RA-2, and RA-5 zones,” and, “Proposed changes to the Town Plan open more of Bristol to mining and heavy industry … ANYWHERE NEAR YOUR HOME?”
The map sparked some confusion, because the “core village” outlined in Moyers’s flyer did not match up with the “core” downtown districts as identified in the town plan.
But as Moyers later clarified, the area on his map did demarcate the zoning regions where the planning commission has explicitly prohibited resource extraction in the draft town plan — and to his mind, because the draft plan does not specifically prohibit mining in any other zones, those areas could be open to extraction in the future.
The map also pointed out that the MIX zones in the South Street and Pine Street neighborhoods had not, in the draft plan, been guaranteed any explicit protection from mining.
Several residents who live in or near these MIX zones took time at the hearing to urge the planning commission to consider building stronger restrictions against heavy industry into the draft town plan.
While resource extraction dominated the discussion on Tuesday evening, residents did take time to make a few other suggestions to the town planners.
Tom Lathrop, who runs Lathrop Lumber, encouraged the commission to consider loosening restrictions on new businesses, commercial enterprises and retail operations outside of the central village area. Bristol, he reminded planners, is poised to grow in the years ahead, but additional residential growth should be coupled with business growth.
“With housing, people need access to shops (and) retail facilities,” Lathrop said. “It appears that the downtown core is circling the wagons and they really resist any competition. I feel as though that is wrong.”
Also on hand Tuesday evening was resident Robert Bernstein, who urged the commission to consider including more information in the draft plan about municipal facilities and government planning. Later in the evening, Bernstein also pointed out that he thought the planners should take time to consider how the town might, in the future, use the New Haven gravel pit property located near the entrance to the town.
And in broaching a delicate topic, Bernstein also questioned the “insiderism” that comes from having two members of the same family serve as chairs of town boards: namely, husband and wife Tom Wells and Carol Wells, who chair the planning commission and Bristol selectboard, respectively.
“I don’t want my town run by insiders of the new school or the old school,” Bernstein said.
Now that the second public hearing is past, the planning commission will discuss the comments gathered at the meeting and decide how best to revise the plan.
If they’re satisfied with the draft at that point, it will head to the selectboard for review. The selectboard will then hold at least two more public hearings to discuss the draft.
Copies of the latest draft of the plan are available at the Bristol town offices.