By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — The Bristol Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) voted last Thursday to reject the contentious proposal from the Lathrop Limited Partnership to construct and operate a 39-acre gravel pit on its property at South Street and Rounds Road in Bristol.
The board’s decision, however, which comes nearly two months after the board wrapped up evidentiary hearings on the issue, falls short of closure for Bristol’s heated five-year debate on the project. Earlier this week, Jim Lathrop’s lawyer, Mark Hall, indicated that the Lathrops intend to file an appeal to the decision before the 30-day window for an appeal closes.
The ZBA voted 5 to 2 to deny the Lathrop application. Acting Chair Kevin Brown and board members Carol Clauss, Peter Grant, Paul Jackman and Brenda Tillberg voted to reject the project, with Bob Stetson and Ron Kowalski dissenting.
The ZBA found that the Lathrop application for conditional use did not fulfill a subsection in the town’s zoning bylaws that prohibits the creation of a gravel pit, “unless provision is made to refill such pit.”
The section in question — section 526 — deals specifically with commercial sand and gravel operations, outlining 10 requirements for these operations in Bristol. The board found that the Lathrop proposal met the majority of these requirements, and indeed was a stronger application than the original proposal submitted to the ZBA in 2003.
According to the ZBA’s decision, the second of these 10 requirements, which calls for any pit created to be refilled, is designed to favor small projects that can be refilled economically or the opening of a hillside where slopes and contours can be smoothed into the surrounding landscape.
There was some disagreement among board members as to whether or not the Lathrop proposal constituted a “pit” — Kowalski and Stetson determined that, based on a cross section of the proposed pit, the project’s geometry was “that of a shallow dish, similar to a type of dinner plate,” and therefore did not satisfy the meaning of the word “pit.”
By this rationale, Kowalski and Stetson reasoned that the Lathrop project did not violate the subsection of the gravel extraction bylaws which prohibits the digging of a pit or steep slopes.
The majority of the ZBA, nonetheless, determined that a literal definition of a “pit” applied to the Lathrop project.
“The applicant’s proposal has many positive attributes and offers many improvements over its previous submission for which the Board gave conditional-use approval,” the ZBA wrote in its final decision. “The ZBA, however, cannot be true to its duty and ignore the failure of this specific proposal to comply with §526(2).”
The board also found that the Lathrop proposal did not meet a subsection of the excavation bylaws that prohibits excavation, blasting or stockpiling of materials within 200 feet of any road or property line. The board subsequently ruled that the violation could be remedied by simply requiring compliance with the 200-foot setback.
After ruling that the proposal was not in compliance with section 526 of Bristol’s zoning bylaws, the ZBA did not consider the project under the conditional use zoning bylaws.
James Dumont, a Bristol lawyer who helped spearhead opposition to the pit, said that he disagreed with portions of the ZBA’s decision, but that the ultimate ruling makes sense.
“In a small town where emotions run high, the zoning board took a careful, reasonable position,” said Dumont. “They clearly took a reasonable, responsible, professional look at this. That’s the important thing.”
Dumont said that he had received communication from the Lathrop’s lawyer indicating that the Lathrops will file an appeal. Any appeal would be heard by the environmental court in a “de novo” trial that does not owe any particular deference to the ZBA findings.
Dumont was reluctant to speculate about the appeal, although he said the ZBA’s decision is, in his opinion, well articulated. Lathrop and his lawyer will face the task of proving that the ZBA’s initial interpretation is the wrong one, Dumont said.
“I’ve been practicing law for 30 years,” he said. “The way (the ZBA) wrote it seems correct to me. Other lawyers may disagree, but it sure looks good to me. I feel good about the decision.”
Other local opponents to the project shared this sentiment.
“Obviously I’m pleased with the decision,” said Bristol resident John Moyers, who has long been vocal in his opposition to the Lathrop pit. “It’s good that the board took so much time to hear the public and consider the issues.
“Everyone in town’s tired of this thing,” Moyers continued. “It’d be nice if we could just move on.”
The Lathrops’ lawyer, Mark Hall, was not available for comment at the time of publication.