Environmental Court buries proposed Bristol pit, voids earlier permits

BRISTOL — A 12-year-long conflict over a proposed gravel pit near downtown Bristol is likely at an end.
Judge Thomas Durkin of the Vermont Superior Court’s Environmental Division last week issued an order nullifying all previous permits and zoning decisions concerning the 26-acre gravel pit near Rounds Road and South Street in Bristol first proposed by Lathrop Limited Partnership in 2003.
Durkin’s July 20 order further stipulates that any new project proposal would be subject to current regulation.
While the judge’s order leaves open the possibility that such a proposal could be made, the most recent Bristol Town Plan (approved by voters in 2012) expressly prohibits extraction within the designated Village Planning Area, which stretches well past the contested site in all directions.
“The people of Bristol should recognize and be proud that this outcome is good for the town and is the result of a huge amount of hard work by many, many people. A lot of people worked really hard to get here,” said attorney James Dumont, who has represented citizens opposed to the proposed gravel extraction operation.
“People worked really hard to get the town plan where it is right now,” Dumont continued. “People worked really hard on the zoning board in ’03 and ’04 to come up with the original zoning decision. They wanted a zoning decision that would be fair to everybody, so they imposed 23 conditions that were intended to protect the community. And it turned out that Lathrop wanted to pull out the gravel without complying with those 23 conditions, and that’s why we’re where we are right now.”
Lathrop’s attorney, Mark Hall, did not return calls or emails to give the family’s perspective on the Environmental Court’s most recent decision. A spokesperson for the Lathrop family voiced only, “no comment.”
The proposed gravel pit ignited over a decade of conflict because of its proximity to the village center. Proponents argued that it would bring needed jobs and revenue to the community, based on a valuable local resource. Gravel is important to roads and construction, among other uses, and is part of Vermont’s glacial heritage, as are its remaining granite, marble and slate quarries. But unlike granite or marble quarrying, which tends to be owned and operated by large corporations (Rock of Ages, Omya), gravel operations can be run on a smaller scale.
Opponents argued that with the anticipated heavy traffic, proposed to be from 17 to more than 100 trucks a day, the gravel pit would bring industrial-level noise to downtown and have a negative impact on air quality, driver and pedestrian safety, property values, and the overall livability of the area in and around the downtown and village center.
The struggle over the pit also highlighted divisions within the community over the best use of natural resources, property owners’ rights vs. the rights of the community as interpreted through Act 250, the appropriate legal processes and public forums for resolving controversial land-use issues, and the community’s vision of itself and of who belongs there. The Lathrop family, for example, has been in Bristol since ancestor Noah Lathrop first operated a sawmill in the 1870s. And there has been a simmering sense of old timers vs. outsiders, blue collar workers vs. a community that increasingly defines itself through white collar jobs and services.
The legal battle surrounding this proposed gravel pit has, in the words of Vermont Supreme Court Justice John A. Dooley’s March 2015 majority opinion, “carved a very long and circuitous path.”
Lathrop first applied to build the gravel pit in 2003 as a new venture after a 2002 fire damaged one of the company’s sawmills so badly that Lathrop Forest Products had to lay off a number of workers. Later in 2003, the Bristol Zoning Board of Adjustment issued a permit for the proposed project, stipulating 23 conditions, and the protests began.
In 2007, Lathrop submitted a revised proposal, but this time the town said no, as did the District 9 Environmental Commission, which issues Act 250 permits. The landmark Act 250 law (enacted in 1970) seeks to balance the ongoing demand for growth with the desire to best preserve the state’s unique scenic beauty and natural resources. Without the required Act 250 permit, the gravel pit could not be built.
Then in 2013, the Environmental Court issued Lathrop an Act 250 permit but for a version of the proposed project that had not gone before the town zoning board or the District 9 Environmental Commission. A group of Bristol citizens appealed the Environmental Court’s decision to the Vermont Supreme Court, which this past March struck down the Environmental Court’s earlier ruling and tasked Durkin with sending a revised proposal back through the proper channels to the town zoning board and the District 9 Environmental Commission.
Last week’s decision, which the court formally released to the public on Thursday, comes out of protracted and ongoing settlement discussions between attorneys for both Lathrop Limited Partnership and the citizens who appealed the Environmental Court’s 2013 decision.
At this point, any possibility of the gravel extraction project’s moving forward would depend on the existing discrepancy between the town of Bristol’s current zoning map and the town plan approved by voters in 2012 that expressly prohibits gravel extraction within a designated Village Planning Area that stretches north of Plank Road and almost as far south as where Hewitt Road joins Route 116.
For members of the Bristol Planning Commission, the struggle over how to define the new Village Planning Area and whether to allow or disallow gravel extraction within that area was not an easy one.
“We needed to balance the need for jobs and for gravel and dirt with the interest in how best to develop our immediate downtown and residential areas,” said Planning Commission Chair Sue Kavanagh in an interview this week. “The voters approved the new town plan in November 2012, but we struggled and deliberated very carefully and very thoughtfully to come up with that plan.
“The things that we had to balance were an interest in jobs and an interest in taking advantage of natural resources available in Bristol, while recognizing that the counterpoint is what that kind of resource extraction means: big trucks; big equipment; negative effects on noise levels, air quality, land and property values, pedestrian safety, driver safety; the need for housing. Those elements caused us to go back and forth on this topic,” she added.
Also driving the crafting and adoption of the 2012 Bristol Town Plan was a desire to preserve livability in the central downtown and village area and encourage residential use and light industry, light industry in this case being defined as “work that’s done inside a building that has few exterior effects, such as noise or pollution.”
A number of gravel pits already operate in the Bristol area, but none of the size proposed by Lathrop and none that would similarly affect the downtown and residential areas. Ultimately, the location of the proposed pit emerged as the defining issue.
“Nobody’s saying that we’re against gravel,” said attorney Dumont. “Nobody has raised complaints about any of Bristol’s existing gravel pits. It’s this one, which would have been a heap bigger than any of the other ones and so near the downtown, with trucks going through a residential area. That’s why people have said that this one is wrong, and that’s why this is the right outcome.”
Local entrepreneur Kevin Harper, who was among the nine citizens who appealed the Environmental Court’s 2013 decision, welcomed last week’s decision.
“We all love this community, the Lathrops love this community, and it’s about trying to find a balance,” Harper said. “It’s been a long haul for a lot of people on both sides and I’m just happy to be focusing on more positive objectives. It feels way better to be building a new firehouse or developing affordable housing than protesting a pit.
“I hope we can all move forward together and focus on things that will build our community.”

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