Opinion: Supreme Court right to reject pit

The Supreme Court of Vermont just dealt a major blow to the Lathrop Limited Partnership’s proposed gravel pit in Bristol. In a unanimous decision issued March 20, the Court reversed rulings by the lower Environmental Court that allowed the project to move forward. The high court’s decision marks the end — we hope — of a long and costly struggle.
The proposed pit would have been the largest in Addison County, located just across the river from Main Street, within sight and earshot of many places in and near the village. The court’s decision protects the people of Bristol and the qualities that make this community so livable.
In a nutshell, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Court erred in overturning 23 conditions imposed by the Bristol Zoning Board in 2004 to safeguard residents and the community; erred in ignoring evidence that extreme trucking noise would harm nearby homes; and erred in overturning the Zoning Board’s 2008 ruling that the gravel pit would be — yes — a pit.
In 2004, the zoning board approved Lathrop’s original permit application, but imposed 23 conditions to protect public safety and our neighborhoods, including limits on the number of truckloads per day and limits on the noise impact at nearby homes. The Environmental Court, at Lathrop’s request, overturned most of these conditions. Now the Supreme Court has reinstated them, finding the Environmental Court had no basis for its action. If the development ever gets final approval, these conditions will apply.
The Environmental Court also ignored undisputed evidence of extraordinary levels of trucking noise at Hewitt Road homes. The Supreme Court has now ordered the lower court to take these severe noise impacts into account if Lathrop presses on.
In 2008, Lathrop sought a permit for a different version of its plan. The Bristol Zoning Board ruled that the excavation would create a “pit” and that Lathrop had submitted no plan to refill that pit, as our zoning rules explicitly require. So the zoning board denied the permit. The Environmental Court overruled that denial and asserted — incredibly — that this massive pit really would not be a pit. Now the Supreme Court has corrected that mistake. The high court’s ruling offers Lathrop a chance to show how it might refill its pit, but we wonder if Lathrop really intends to do that. The ideas mentioned thus far would require a variance from explicit prohibitions in Bristol’s zoning — a huge obstacle for the developer.
People should know that we could’ve had a resolution long ago, saving much of the time and money spent on hearings and appeals. Way back in 2005, we asked the Supreme Court to rule on one fundamental question: whether the project would result in a “pit” that therefore must be refilled. An answer then would have ended most of this dispute. But Lathrop opposed our request for the Supreme Court to address that simple question, and so here we are, 10 years and countless hearings and dollars later.
The intervening years at least gave Bristol residents an opportunity to express their opinions. In a 2006 survey, they indicated strong support for protecting Bristol’s rural-village character and strong opposition to new heavy-industrial and “large-scale commercial” development. In 2010, voters soundly defeated — by a two-to-one margin — a revised town plan that would have green-lighted the Lathrop project. And in an equally strong vote in 2012, they adopted a new town plan that preserves areas adjacent to the village — including the Lathrop site — for future village expansion.
The people of Bristol know that gravel is an important resource, but they also know there are better sites for a huge gravel pit than a residential neighborhood near our beautiful downtown. The Supreme Court decision reinforces this common sense. After more than a decade of litigation, this ruling should end the case.
Bruce Acciavatti, Naomi Drummond, Carl Engvall, Caroline Engvall, Randall Freeman, George Landis, Jill Mackler, John Moyers, Sue Small and others
Smart Growth for Bristol

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