AUGUSTA — The Planning Board has reversed its previous decision and granted a license to allow blasting in a West River Road pit in an area that has long generated noise complaints from some of neighbors.

Board members reversed on Tuesday their previous rejection of blasting at the site because their previous vote was based in part on their concern blasting wasn’t compatible with the Grandview neighborhood. But they learned Tuesday the residences are too far away to be considered a neighborhood, which the project must be compatible with under city land use rules.

Board members voted 3-1 Tuesday to add the authorization to blast to Harold Warren Construction’s mineral extraction license for a quarry operation contained within the company’s West River Road pit. The property that abuts, and shares an entrance with, a controversial pit and quarry operation owned by McGee Construction.

Over the last several years, blasting at the McGee pit has drawn complaints from residents of the Grandview neighborhood, a residential area that abuts McGee’s pit where blasting takes place several times a year to free up rock used as construction material. McGee’s license, which includes the ability to blast up to 10 times a year in the pit, was renewed by the board last October.

The Warren pit is on the opposite side of McGee’s pit from the Grandview neighborhood, between McGee’s pit, Route 3 and the Kennebec River.

Last November, the Planning Board rejected Warren’s request to add blasting to his mineral extraction license. Board members at the time said they were concerned adding blasting at the Warren pit would add to the troubles of Grandview residents who were already worn down by blasting at the McGee pit, saying blasting at the Warren pit didn’t meet city land use ordinance standards for being compatible with the neighborhood.

However those same city land use rules also define the “neighborhood” which should be considered in determining whether a proposed project is compatible with it as properties within 1,000 feet of the site. The nearest home in the Grandview neighborhood is about 1,600 feet away from the Warren pit, and the closest home to the pit anywhere is across the Kennebec River, some 1,400 feet away on Riverside Drive, according to Matt Nazar, city development director.

Because there is no “neighborhood” within 1,000 feet of the pit, Nazar told board members it appeared the Warren proposal is in compliance with the standards of the ordinance. Board members begrudgingly agreed, and voted to grant Warren the ability to blast.

“I see no reason to deny it, though I’m not particularly happy about it,” said Peter Pare, board member. “We can’t take individual cases and try to make adjustments based on personal feelings or group dynamics if, in fact, the application meets the criteria.”

Board member Steve Dumont, who was the lone dissenting vote, said pit owners can go home and have peace and quiet at their homes but residents who live close enough to the pit to hear and feel the blasting cannot, because of the impact of blasting on their homes and lives.

Grandview neighborhood resident Maryalice Crofton, in a letter to the city she said was sent on behalf of her family, said quarry blasting in such close proximity to their neighborhood has lowered property values, can damage homes and septic systems, and is a serious source of stress driving people away from their homes during blasts.

“The explosions raise blood pressure, significantly increase the flight instinct and adrenaline and, for some, (cause) reactive memories of combat,” wrote Crofton, who previously has said her husband is a Vietnam veteran and, to him, the blasts feel like “incoming fire.”

No other residents of the neighborhood spoke out on the issue Tuesday.

Steve Roberge, of SJR Engineering, who represented Harold Warren Construction at Tuesday’s board meeting, said blasting on the site will take place on less than an acre of the 50 acre parcel, near the Kennebec River, well down hill from the Grandview area, on part of the property chosen in order to try to minimize any impact of blasting on neighbors. Most importantly, he said, it is not adjacent to a neighborhood.

“There is no neighborhood within 1,000 feet,” Roberge said. “That’s what is in your ordinance. You might agree with it or you might not agree with it. But you’re required to review based upon what is in the ordinance.”

Roberge said if residents don’t like that, it’s up to them to approach city officials and seek to change the ordinance.

That is precisely what A. Delaine Nye, board member, said needs to be done. She said the board should, as expeditiously as possible, put an item on its agenda to consider making changes to the ordinance to address the situation. She noted blasting licenses approved by the board include a provision specifically stating the license holder would be subject to any future changes city councilors make to the city’s blasting rules, including having to comply with more stringent rules if adopted, even after they have secured their licenses.

The city’s blasting rules require blasters, ahead of each blast, to notify all neighbors within 2,500 feet of the blast site.

Kristen Collins, an attorney with Preti Flaherty advising the Planning Board, said if the city changes its ordinances to ban blasting within 2,500 feet of a neighborhood, even after the Warren license is granted, the ordinance could apply to Warren. And, she said in response to a question from a board member, the ordinance could apply to other quarries with similar permission to blast as well. There are only two other quarry operators with permission to blast in Augusta, McGee and Quirion Construction.

Roberge, in response to the discussion about banning quarries from blasting within 2,500 feet of a neighborhood, said: “If you change this to 2,500 feet, you’ve shut down all the rock quarries in Augusta. Even active ones that already have permits.”

The issue came back to the Planning Board for a second review after Harold Warren Construction appealed the November 2017 denial of the firm’s request to add blasting to his license to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals. The appeals board sent the matter back to the Planning Board for further review and asked for clarification of whether the board followed the standards of city ordinances in denying the request.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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