A recently issued state land use permit may have given Morristown permission to finally start digging into a new part of its gravel pit, but that green light may have come with too many red flags.
The town last week appealed the Act 250 permit to the state Environmental Court. The appeal brings up questions about what the town and the public can do on the 316-acre property located at the end of Duhamel Road, both now and years down the road.
“I’ve got a permit that is 14 pages long and I don’t want to start with good faith following the guidelines and then find out there are things that could trip us up,” town administrator Eric Dodge said.
In her Nov. 22 notice of appeal, town lawyer L. Brooke Dingledine indicated the town would challenge several aspects of the land-use permit and the findings of fact issued Oct. 25 by the state Environmental Commission District No. 5.
In its appeal, the town argues against what Dodge described as “government overreach,” raising issues such as:
• Whether the commission has the jurisdiction and authority to dictate that nearly 300 acres be “preserved in perpetuity,” even after the town has exhausted the property of its useful materials.
• Whether the state’s observation in the original land-use permit that the town planned to set aside roughly 288 acres not included in the first two extraction phases constitutes an actual “critical and binding” condition applicable to the current amendment, or if it was just a finding of fact about the site.
• Whether the state means to prohibit using the parts of the property that had previously been used for extraction for recreational purpose or as preserved open space.
“To do so would thwart the intent of the original permit condition that sought to preserve these acres,” the commission stated. “Mining land for gravel does not constitute preserving land for open space and recreation purposes.”
The town is also questioning the state’s order that the town call it quits after Phase 3 wraps up about 25 years from now. Dodge said he and other town officials feel the state is exerting too much control over the land, even after a quarter century into the future.
“I think we all recognize that, when it ends, the state won’t have oversight anymore,” Dodge said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me that their arms are that long.”
In addition to concerns of government overreach, there are questions about some of the stipulations being placed on Phase 3 operations that might not have been there in the previous extractions.
For instance, is it necessary to install a wet dust control system on the crusher, something that’s never been called for before?
And why is the state limiting crushing hours to 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m., when the town only operates the crusher for three weeks during the entire year, yet relies on being able to process as much material as it can during that period?
“Some of these things were not brought up in hearings,” Dodge said. “Nobody ever mentioned there was a problem with the crushing plant.”
The town is also unclear whether the highway department must completely wrap up the reclamation of Phase 2 pit operations before starting on the next phase — particularly preparation like building the new haul road.
Dodge said the application process to amend the pit’s Act 250 permit was started nearly three years ago, and the town has worked to allay neighbors’ concerns about water quality from the extraction, and to provide outdoors enthusiasts — particularly mountain bikers who frequent the many miles of trails on the pit property — ways to continue to use the property, even creating a bike crossing for the new haul road.
He said it’s frustrating to have a permit that both contains too much state control and too few clear guidelines.
“We want to do things right, we want to make the neighbors happy, and we want to extract gravel in a fiscally responsible way,” Dodge said.
The fiscally responsible way does not involve buying gravel from someone else, which is what the town has done for the past two fiscal years.
With budget discussions for the 2023-24 fiscal year now well underway, the town is still unable to fully bank on being able to supply its own road material needs next year.
With that in mind, Dodge has proposed only allocating $20,000 for pit operations. However, he is also proposing an increase in purchased materials — $120,000 for crushed gravel and $80,000 for sand.
The sand sum is normal, but the gravel cost?
“That’s a lot for crushed gravel,” Dodge said. “But if you look at a lot of our dirt roads, they are flat as a pancake.”
In other words, they need some work, and that requires gravel.
When and if the town gets a favorable outcome to its appeal, it will simply shift budgets from purchased materials into pit operations.
“We’re hoping we can get the appeal resolved before the end of the winter,” Dodge said.