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Fenn gravel pit fits the mold

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The hearing before Middlebury’s Development Review Board on Monday night concerning the proposed Fenn Gravel Pit off Route 116 in Middlebury fits the mold to the letter: it was tedious, contentious and frustrating for the public. Unfortunately, that’s the process (the applicant must present their plans in full at the initial hearing, which seldom leaves adequate time for questions) and there are few, if any, shortcuts to that first step.

Knowing that, the public’s next move is to employ patience and persistence as they press to get answers to their questions and reasonable extensions of time to adequately prepare responses at forthcoming hearings.

Of the requests the public made at Monday’s meeting, an extension of the time allotted to adequately prepare a rebuttal seems fully justified. At issue is the claim that neighbors and other opponents had only been given the latest revised proposal a couple of weeks ago, while the advocates had been granted more than nine months to work on their “revised” plan.

On complex issues in which both sides are arguing details provided through expert testimony, it is unreasonable to expect opponents to effectively counter that testimony in short order. If the proponents took nine months to revise their proposal, the four months or so the opponents requested seems modest, practical and a sincere effort to respond intelligently without causing undue delay.

In the prelude to debate on this proposal, a few issues deserve particular note:

• First, the pit is located within a Forest-Conservation District, which requires a conditional use permit. By definition that means not all projects are worthy of a permit, but that proposals that meet certain criteria have a good chance of approval if there are no mitigating circumstances.

• Secondly, an access road to the proposed pit would bisect a Medium-Density Residential zone in order to reach Route 116. On its very face, the road intrudes into a residential area in ways that zoning is supposed to prevent. Town zoning, at its core, is meant to protect an individual’s investment in property from being devalued by inappropriate development in adjoining or neighboring lots. One likely battle, if this permit goes forward, will be proving or disproving that the access road is a violation of existing zoning. In initial testimony the applicant tried to suggest such a ruling would make a mockery of Middlebury’s zoning laws, but exactly the opposite is true. The clear intent of the provision is to allow residential neighborhoods to develop without fear that an industrial activity will locate near them by virtue of a connecting road splitting the heart of the neighborhood in order to reach an appropriate egress.

A third issue is that the exit and entrance onto Route 116 for trucks carrying the gravel is near a blind curve that would create hazardous driving conditions on a well-traveled highway. From a traffic safety perspective, that’s a huge hurdle to overcome.

On the big-picture issues, the applicant’s task was akin to putting lipstick on a pig. The applicant hired experts to testify for more than two hours Monday night that if extraordinary measures were taken, the noise, traffic and dust pollution might be held to just under the maximum acceptable levels. To do that the applicant would have to build berms to shield neighbors from the noise, keep the site “as vegetated as possible” (and when is the last time anyone saw a vegetated gravel pit?), and keep one area of the pit screened for the gravel crushing process.

All are measures to mitigate the obvious: Active gravel pits create noise, traffic and dust, and they produce all three in quantities that are often annoying to neighbors. The question facing the DRB is whether those increased levels are beyond the comfort zone for neighbors, and whether adding more noise, pollution and traffic to this particular area makes sense.

On the surface it doesn’t, but that’s what hearings are all about. The DRB was right not to dismiss the applicant’s permit without review, but now that the details are on the table the board must soon decide whether to reject it with a cursory review of the obvious or set a stage that will inevitably lead to a long and protracted battle between developer and neighborhood.

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