WEST PAWLET — Kim and Josh Gaschel and their three young children moved to West Pawlet to pursue what Kim called the “Vermont lifestyle” just one year ago.
They found a big 1880s home on Route 153: 12.5 acres with 75 apple trees where the Gaschels hoped to create a homestead for their family.
“I wanted to self sustain as much as possible,” Gaschel said. “That’s why we moved here. I felt like Vermont is the place to be.”
The quiet slate quarry behind their home was cause for minor concern, but Kim said her realtor, Chris Lawrence, of Gilbert Realty, told her it was no longer active.
“He said nothing about it possibly opening again, nothing about any independent research,” Gaschel said. “He knew darn well we were moving here for a good quality of life for the kids and that we are environmental people. He would have known that would have turned us right away.”
Lawrence said it’s office policy to inform all prospective buyers of the potential for nearby quarries to re-open.
“You could see the old quarry was right there,” Lawrence said of the Gaschels’ property. “I told them there are quarries nearby all along that western section. I told them to do a Google Map search and look at the pits...there is always the chance that it could be reactivated, but if it’s been closed up or not used, we will tell them ‘currently it’s not an active quarry.’”
Poultney residents Kristin and Jeff Silverman said they were told something similar almost 10 years ago, before Hilltop Slate last year re-opened a slate quarry located across the street from their home.
The quarry operations resulted in the Silvermans filing a lawsuit, which they had to settle last month because the legal fees were too much to bear. Because the settlement won’t account for all of the damages to their property, the Silvermans were left looking at possible foreclosure.
“I feel bad for her,” Kristin Silverman said in an interview. “She’s walking right into what we went through.”
Come September, the Gaschels heard trees being felled and loud excavation one morning, so they ventured behind their property to find an enormous area of freshly-cleared land that Gaschel said two young men were preparing for mining.
Gaschel said the land where the quarry is located belongs to Newmont Slate, a slate company that, much like Hilltop Slate, registered their West Pawlet quarries according to the 1995 legislation effectively “grandfathering” the quarries in under Act 250, according to documents from Joyce Fagan, Act 250 technician for Rutland County.
Act 250, Criterion 10 states that for a quarry to apply for a permit to operate, it must adhere to the town plan and zoning laws, unless the quarry was registered by Jan. 1, 1997, in which case the quarry would be exempt from all Act 250 requirements, which include town zoning setback requirements from adjacent properties.
The Act 250 exemption protects slate quarries, which operate according to a naturally-occurring vein of slate running through the earth, from having to cease their operations because of town zoning bylaws created or amended after the quarry was established.
“All the quarries are grandfathered in, they are operated as needed,” said Bob Williams, of Newmont Slate, in an interview.
Bob Williams said that Newmont is not digging any new quarries in the hundreds of acres Newmont has, which would require Act 250 permitting.
“We dug yesterday, we’re digging today, we dug 50 years ago,” Williams said. “It’s been 50 years we’ve been digging in West Pawlet.”
Williams said he didn’t know if the quarries were located near any wetlands, before asking if the matter concerned Kim Gaschel.
Both West Pawlet Zoning Administrator Hal Wilkins and Castleton Zoning Administrator Jonas Rosenthal said they’d advise property owners who sustained property damage due to quarrying activities to acquire legal representation or at least consult with a lawyer before taking action against slate quarry companies, which is exactly what the Silvermans did. Until they couldn’t anymore, and had to settle for lack of funds to bring the case to the Supreme Court, Silverman said.
The Act 250 Commission, chaired by Rep. Amy Sheldon, met earlier this year to discuss the legislation, and possible amendments that would tailor the Act for the next 50 years. Sheldon said a report would be released on Dec. 15.
Sheldon said the report will then be discussed with legislative counsel, and Act 250 legal counsel Aaron Adler said the exemption could be brought up at the next legislative session in January.
“The report would go to standing committees and they might decide to propose bills,” Adler said.
Sheldon said the commission is accepting public comments regarding Act 250 and all exemptions for consideration, and that they have received several regarding the Act 250 exemption for slate quarries and how they affect local communities, but couldn’t recall receiving any comment from the slate industry. “In the last 25 years or so it has degraded the quality of life for so many people,” Wells resident Lou Mangiani said in his public comment submitted to the commission. “It is a disgrace. Act 250 was meant to protect us from this kind of exploitative development and the exemption omits us from these protections.”
Lawrence said there’s always a chance that quarries could open back up again, even if they aren’t in use for years.
“This quarry here was active, it could be active again,” Lawrence said. “You just don’t know.”