WHITEFIELD — The looming possibility of a gravel pit expansion has town officials re-examining the development ordinance, which has not been improved since a court declared it unconstitutionally vague 20 years ago.
Town meeting voters will decide March 15 if the the town can impose a six-month moratorium of development or expansion of gravel pits until the town can rewrite the ordinance.
The Topsham-based company that owns the 157-acre pit at Thayer Road and Route 218 got Department of Environmental Protection approval in December to excavate below the water line and reclaim 37 acres as a pond.
The company, Harry C. Crooker and Sons, also must get approval from the Whitefield Planning Board to revise its permit from the town, which states that the company cannot dig below two feet above the seasonal high water table. The company has not yet filed a development application.
Whitefield’s development ordinance sets standards, such as requiring that a development “not place an unreasonable burden on the general health, safety, welfare or convenience of the citizens of Whitefield,” but the problem is that it doesn’t provide any guidelines to determine whether a project meets the standards, Planning Board Chairman Jim Torbert said.
That created trouble for Whitefield two decades ago, when Crooker and Sons wanted to operate a mobile asphalt plant at the pit. The Planning Board approved the permit, but residents asked the Board of Appeals to reject it, which it did, citing two subsections of the development ordinance.
Crooker and Sons sued in Sagadahoc County Superior Court and won when the court said the ordinance language was so vague as to give the Board of Appeals impermissible legislative authority.
That was in 1994, and the development ordinance has not been amended since.
To provide time to improve the ordinance, the Board of Selectmen approved the Planning Board’s request to put an item on the Town Meeting warrant for residents to discuss and vote on a six-month moratorium on development or expansion of gravel pits.
According to DEP records, there are three licensed and active mining operations in Whitefield.
“We felt that we needed time to develop an ordinance, not necessarily to stop Crooker from pursuing his plans,” Torbert said.
Company officials did not respond to messages on Thursday.
Torbert said the moratorium would be retroactive to Jan. 31, when the Planning Board started working on it, and could be extended by the selectmen to last until residents could vote on a new development ordinance during the November regular election.
Torbert said town officials have a lot of angles and pieces of information to research, such as results of similar excavations elsewhere, mining and development ordinances in other towns and implications for shoreline zoning regulations.
DEP’s approval of the excavation sets several conditions, including monitoring groundwater levels and quality quarterly. DEP staff concluded that the project would not affect nearby wells, cause unreasonable erosion, interfere with the flow of groundwater, or harm human health, public safety or wildlife habitats.
The Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association, however, voiced concerns to DEP that Crooker and Sons’ application did not include enough information for a thorough review.
“It seemed to us like the DEP was leaving a lot to well, let’s wait and require monitoring, that should be sufficient to point out any problems should they occur as this project unfolds,” said John DelVeccio, chairman of the association’s advocacy committee and a Whitefield resident. “The underlying concern we have there is we’d rather prevent problems. Because once you get problems in groundwater, our understanding is it may take a long time to straighten them out.”
Other Whitefield residents are also worried about Crooker and Sons’ plans.
Steve Smith Sr., a former longtime member of the Planning Board and a site evaluator for wastewater systems, wants to be assured that the sides of the pond are sloped gently enough that someone who falls in can get out, that the water is aerated to create an environment that will support life and that money is set aside for reclamation in case Crooker and Sons becomes unable to do it.
“We’re going to excavate a big, round sore on the surface of the earth that goes directly into one of the purest, largest water supplies that we have in the entire area,” Smith said.
Whitefield sits atop an aquifer that flows into the Sheepscot River, a spawning ground for Atlantic salmon.
Smith said that in addition to the development ordinance, many of Whitefield’s other ordinances would be vulnerable if challenged in court.
Torbert said that since the lawsuit by Crooker and Sons, there’s been no impetus to improve the development ordinance.
“An issue never came up that challenged it, I guess,” he said. “Part of it is that we have an elected planning board which sometimes doesn’t have as good an institutional memory as it should.”