In Bristol this Tuesday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m., the Zoning Board of Adjustment will meet to continue discussions regarding the proposed Lathrop gravel pit. It’s a complicated project with an Act 250 filing as thick as a big-city phone book, but the central question that needs public input and board leadership is relatively straight-forward: Is the proposed location of the pit the appropriate place for a large-scale mining operation, and should the public have a chance to clarify wording in the town plan that has created much of the ambiguity pertaining to this project?
The ambiguous wording is the phrase “in any district” found in section 526 of the town plan. The dueling interpretations of the phrase contend that the phrase would allow gravel mining ‘in any district’ in the town (supposedly including the village or any other residential setting) or, opponents of the pit argue, that the phrase meant that mining was allowed ‘in any district’ (industrial, etc.) where mining was allowed.
Logic would suggest that full-scale mining operations — with rock-crushers and the consequential noise and dust that would come from such an operation — would not be suitable for residential zones or mixed rural residential, commercial zones. The Bristol Planning Commission, which has the authority to clarify zoning by-laws and revise them if necessary, has said it will take up this section of the town plan at upcoming meetings. That’s welcome involvement because surely the commission members will make every effort to seek public opinion to determine the will of the community. Town plans, after all, are approved by a majority of the town’s residents and crucial aspects of the plan should be reviewed and revised, if necessary, with the public will in mind.
To make such a review effective in this case, however, the ZBA needs to effectively “table” the current discussions on the Lathrop gravel pit until a decision is reached. The technical process to allow that to happen is for the ZBA “to reject without prejudice” the most recent permit application. Such a rejection doesn’t kill the project, just puts it on hold until the ambiguity is clarified. Once that issue is resolved the permit is back on tract and the ZBA can proceed with full confidence that they know the public’s will. It’s a common-sense approach to take.
Concerning facts about the case, a few clarifications are needed:
• Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin did not rule that the proposed pit “fit the town plan.” Rather, Durkin remanded the case back to the Act 250 board for further review. In the initial Act 250 ruling, the pit did not pass muster on Criteria 10, which asks if projects comply with the town plan. Lathrop suggests mining is allowed on the proposed site according to the town plan, but that’s only if the ‘in any district’ clause is interpreted in his favor.
• The gravel operation would employ four people — mainly family members who are currently working for the existing business.
• Property values: Lathrop claims that values would not be hurt and cites two pits in which property values near them have increased in the past five years. But, of course. Those property values were devalued years ago when the pits were first started. Once devalued, inflation itself will cause almost any property to increase. But take a house valued at $250,000 that doesn’t have a gravel pit nearby, and then put one there — and the public can determine the common sense of that equation.
• Act 250 does not require or mandate mining of the proposed land before it can be used for other purposes, as Lathrop claims. Rather, Criteria 9D and 9E suggest that extraction of the earth’s resources is one consideration of development, but that balance is key. The criteria asks developers to: “Demonstrate that the project will not interfere with the future extraction of earth resources; and demonstrate that if the project involves abstraction of earth resources, it will not unduly harm the environment or neighboring land uses and will be reclaimed for an alternative use.” The very nature of zoning is to preclude activities that would be disruptive to the lives of other residents in certain zones and to allow those activities in the appropriate zones. Hence, pig farms aren’t allowed within residential zones; toxic chemical plants are relegated to industrial zones; and so on. That’s the purpose of the town plan.
• Nor has the ZBA granted the Lathrops a gravel permit. The ZBA did decide in the Lathrop’s favor, but that decision has been challenged. A permit is not issued until the challenges and due process are completed.
From the town’s perspective, what’s important in this ruling is that the community feel confident the decision has been made based on an accurate interpretation of the town’s zoning laws. That interpretation can be most accurate by allowing the public to clarify its intention. The planning commission is the appropriate board for that duty, if the ZBA will just allow them that opportunity.
From a practical and financial matter, such a move also makes sense: Currently the town is having to pay legal costs for its lawyer’s involvement in this case; and those costs will mount depending on the number of appeals and counter appeals that are made. In short, it seems fairer to the town taxpayer and to the applicant to get clarification on this issue and then to move forward with that knowledge in hand.
Angelo S. Lynn