A milestone in the Bristol town planning process occurred recently when the Bristol Planning Commission signed off on its third draft of the revised town plan and sent it to the Bristol Selectboard for review. It’s a milestone because the planning commission has spent four and a half years crafting a 100-plus-page document that significantly rewrites the town plan.
While the part of the plan dealing with resource extraction has become a lightning rod for criticism, fueled by opposition to the proposed Lathrop gravel pit, the rest of the rewrite has been thorough and generally well accepted by residents as well as outside groups that deal with community planning issues. To that extent, the planning commission deserves kudos for its substantial efforts.
It is also significant that the proposed town plan deals with the issues of resource extraction in a more specific way than the previous town plan. While the commission had been reluctant to be specific in earlier drafts and had considered putting most of the language about resource extraction within a related zoning ordinance, the final draft of the Town Plan, according to a letter by Chairman Tom Wells, includes language that specifically says that resource extraction “not be permitted in eight zones: HDR, LDR, BC, NC, ROC, REC, MUN and MIX, and that extraction be permitted (but only under proper regulatory circumstances) in the remaining six zones: RC-1, C-1, RA-1, RA-2, RA-5 and Conservation.”
The second Lathrop gravel pit proposal pulled out of the MIX zone and limited its extraction to the RA-2 zone. Thus, the proposed town plan as approved by the Planning Commission would allow, under proper regulatory circumstances, the proposed pit if the plan passes and if the Lathrop family files anew. (The current proposal is still under appeal under the existing town plan.)
We applaud the commission for including specific language in the town plan on resource extraction and attempting to draft language that clears up any confusion about where resource extraction is allowed and where it is not. Whether town residents agree that the proposed zones should be allowed for resource extraction is another matter, but at least ambiguity in the town plan will not be a reason that prompts future battles.
If residents oppose the inclusion of any of the six zoning districts that would permit gravel extraction, that is an issue to take up with the selectboard to try to get it modified; and later at the ballot box if no changes are made.
A solid case can be made for caution as the town proceeds with the town plan revision as is articulated in a letter published in this issue by Bristol resident and attorney James Dumont. He cites several reasons and concerns that the proposed process could be flawed and warns against specific measures. Residents should consider that perspective as from the loyal opposition (that is, concerned residents who are speaking out with Bristol’s best interests at heart but who are in opposition to those officials on the board) and consider the wisdom of both perspectives.
For the immediate future, Bristol residents need to focus on two agendas: First, as required by law, the town selectboard will be holding two public hearings on the proposed town plan. Those meetings should solicit specific public feedback and concern about sections of the plan that may need redrafting, or simply general comments in favor or in opposition. (If opposed, however, specific reasons why and suggested language to replace those sections would be helpful.) Second, the planning commission will turn its attention to writing the specific regulations that define the gravel extraction ordinance. That will include provisions that set the decibel levels of noise created by any proposed gravel pit, the amount of dust that’s allowed; the allowable levels of truck traffic; set back requirements; visibility and aesthetic concerns; reclamation after the pit is finished; as well as countless other matters germane to resource extraction and that the public wants to consider.
Key to drafting that ordinance will be public participation. If residents don’t come forward with specific suggestions and input, they forfeit their voice in the matter. To that end, it is incumbent on residents to attend the upcoming planning commission meetings at which they will be working on this draft language, and make suggestions in writing, as the commission members have asked. (We agree that written suggestions are much preferable to verbal comments when trying to assess public comment and preferences.)
The hope, as this process moves into its final stages and faces a vote at the March Town Meeting, is that the Bristol select board and planning commission will make ample time available at its public meetings for extensive public participation and accept that as part of the due process. In recent weeks, to its credit, the commission has been much more open to allowing extended comment and has been more responsive to public suggestions.
In the end, what everyone wants is a town plan that meets the desire of the vast majority of town residents. That’s no easy task when conflicting views surround controversial issues, but it can be achieved through extensive dialogue and compromise. Continuing on that path is the one common thread in this process that ties the community together.