NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- The Select Board rejected a request Monday to place an advisory question on the March town ballot that would gauge the opinion of residents on the zoning designation of the former Johnson Controls land.
The Select Board voted in September against a zoning change for the site, choosing to keep it industrial land. That vote followed a year-and-a-half review of the current industrial designation with the Planning Commission, which included three public hearings. But Michael Bethel, a resident and ally of property owner Richard Gladstone of Gladstone Development Corp., is continuing an effort to create commercial land.
Bethel has distributed a petition in Bennington seeking signatures that would force the board to place an advisory question on the ballot seeking voters' opinions. But with few signatures, Bethel approached the board Monday and asked them to place it on the ballot without the signed petitions.
"I don't have any signatures at this time. I'd like the Select Board to put it on as an advisory question," he said. "I just think it would be nice to see if the Select Board would like to get the opinion of the people on the Johnson Control issue."
Board member Justin Corcoran made a motion on Bethel's behalf to place the advisory question on the ballot. Christopher Oldham agreed to second the motion to allow it to come to a vote. It failed 4 to 2, with only Corcoran and Oldham voting in favor of it.
"I would be very interested in seeing how people would weigh in on that," Corcoran said before the vote. "It's no secret that I think that's probably one of the largest mistakes this board has made in recent history. I feel that. I still feel that way. I suspect if it went to an advisory vote it would pass 2 or 3 to 1. I'm curious to see whether or not I'm right."
Another board member, Jason Morrissey, was adamantly opposed. "This has been vetted time and time and time and time again," he said. "This board came up with a very good policy, in my opinion."
Morrissey said the public had opportunity to voice its opinion during public hearings and meetings of the Select Board and Planning Commission.
"I think it's been a de facto advisory question for the last six years. I think it's a waste of time. We just adopted a policy after a year and a half. Let's see if it works," he said. "I cannot articulate any other topic that has been more vetted than that. This has been a project of Mr. Bethel and some of his supporters over the last six years to make this a constant issue. We've debated it, we've made a decision on it and I don't think it's worth being an advisory question."
Other board members noted that public meetings and hearings were attended by stakeholders and few members of the public. "There's been public hearings and there's not been great interest as I've seen from attendance and discussion," Greg Van Houten said.
The Select Board set the wheels in motion last year for a potential change when it voted 4 to 3 in favor of beginning the process of altering the zoning designation. The makeup of the board changed, however, and the prospects of the board voting in favor of the change became dim. Still, the Planning Commission voted in June to forward a proposed zoning change, despite taking a position against its own proposal. The commission was tasked by a previous Select Board to develop a possible change for the property, which has not been used in about 20 years.
The plan developed by the commission would have expanded the existing planned commercial district to include the former Johnson Controls parcel. It would also have allowed for some manufacturing and research and development, making it, in effect, a mixed-used designation.
The board ultimately voted against the proposal, but did adopt a new policy that would allow the board to consider zoning changes on a case-by-case basis.