BRISTOL — Renewed concern over the sharply angled slope of the gravel extraction sites near Mount Abraham Union High School has led to some community questions on one of Bristol’s most contentious issues — gravel pits — that could lead to discussion on how to reclaim the site.
Bristol resident David Brynn recently initiated some conversation on the subject with a letter to the editor published in the Addison Independent and with posts on a social media site.
“Continued extraction of gravel from the toe of that slope is making the western faces on the plateau even more unstable,” Brynn wrote. “We need a plan to address the immediate stability issues, the restoration of the site, and the eventual uses of these public lands.”
“I hadn’t been there for awhile,” said Brynn in an interview. The former county forester and executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Family Forests noticed the steep angle of the road behind the high school while taking a walk last week. He had been aware of the gravel pit for years because both of his daughters attended MAUHS.
Nevertheless, it caught his interest, and he was concerned about the precarious-looking slope and wondered how long extraction would continue.
Bristol’s four-and-a-half-square-acre gravel pit is one of the four extraction sites that border the west side of the MAUHS campus. The towns of Ferrisburgh and New Haven each own and operate a pit. A fourth is owned and operated by the Perry Kilbourn family.
The pits date from 1929, long before before Act 250, Vermont’s land use law, was enacted in 1970, so they were allowed to stay. They are, in the words of Bristol Town Administrator Bill Bryant, examples of “how things were done back then.” New Haven’s site, which is 11 square acres, is the pit that is visible from Stoney Hill Road.
“It’s a fair question what will happen to it,” said Bryant, of Bristol's site. “But we are getting a lot of value out of it.”
Bryant said that the town office recently estimated there were 10 to 12 years’ worth of material left in Bristol’s pit.
New Haven extracts around 8,000 cubic yards a year of material from its pit. It expects there to be enough gravel to continue operations there for another 10-15 years, according to Roger Boise, New Haven selectman and road commissioner.
Ferrisburgh claims 2,000 to 2,500 cubic yards of sand from its portion of the Bristol pit. Road Commissioner John Bull said he expects Ferrisburgh to continue excavating there for perhaps another 10 years, though he said the estimate was imprecise.
Kilbourn could not be reached by press time for information on the projected life of their mining operations.
Bryant estimated that the Bristol gravel pit, which supplies the 5,000 cubic yards of material that the town uses each year to maintain Bristol’s 15 miles of dirt roads, saves the town about $40,000 to $50,000 annually. It keeps the town from having to buy gravel at market prices and transport it. By that estimate, Bristol will save about half a million dollars over the 10 to 12 years that the pit will continue supply material.
Bryant also noted that while no one doubts the steepness of the slope, the town no longer drills at that angle, and has not for some time. “The angle was made a long time ago,” he said. “No one is digging at that angle anymore. Instead, they’re digging down.”
In fact, Bryant said, they are hitting veins of washed stone, which is better quality than gravel and is sometimes mixed with dirt to make it appropriate for roads.
The town office has evaluated the site and found that it did not appear to be eroding. It also identified the boundary with Mount Abe and determined that town extraction operations were not crossing it. Nonetheless, Bryant said town officials are happy to field questions from the public about the pit.
“We’ll want to do things right on public land,” Brynn said.
He proposed that the community consider a short-term solution of stabilizing the land; a medium-term solution of reclaiming the land; and a long-term solution of using it for something else that will benefit the community.
“Looking beyond gravel extraction, what could it be used for?” he mused. “The town’s first solar field?”
Both Brynn and Bryant expressed confidence that New Haven and Ferrisburgh had the same interest in extracting gravel responsibly.
“They’re part of the Mount Abe community,” said Brynn. “They’ll want to do things right.”
Ferrisburgh’s Bull said he has been thinking that his town should begin to think about what to do with its own town pit after the sand and gravel runs out.
“That’s something Ferrisburgh should look at,” he said. “Of course you want to leave it better than you found it.”
Brynn is looking forward to getting that discussion going in Bristol.
“It’s a process,” he said. “People should just get together and talk about it.”
Bryant said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Bristol selectboard had more discussions on the matter, and agreed that now could be a good time for the community to start thinking about ways to reclaim the land.
“The beauty of it is that it’s for Bristol,” he said. “The voters and taxpayers decide in the end what happens.”