MONTPELIER — The towns of the Slate Valley region in Western Rutland County are rallying to support the slate industry, despite the Commission on Act 250’s plan to potentially remove the quarry exemption from law.
Letters dated throughout March and April were submitted Wednesday on behalf of the towns of Wells, Pawlet, Poultney, Castleton, Fair Haven and Hubbardton asking the state Legislature to reconsider removing the slate quarry exemption for industries they claimed helped to preserve the heritage of their communities and provide hundreds of jobs in small-economy towns.
Days before, former Poultney resident Kristen Silverman told her story in a letter dated on April 22: After nine years in her home and promises that the neighboring quarry would never reopen, Hilltop Slate opened the old quarry across the street and started a years-long battle that resulted in her family considering the foreclosure process after their property value plummeted and their water source was ruined.
“We went to the Town of Poultney hoping they could help/protect us in some way,” Silverman wrote. “They repeatedly told us it was a civil matter. We went to the EPA, MSHA, even Bill Burke in Rutland at the Act 250 office. Everyone was sympathetic, but no one could help.”
After tens of thousands of dollars in lawyer fees, the Silvermans settled and left their home behind.
Poultney Town Manager Paul Donaldson cited the loss of Green Mountain College in the community and the town’s dependence on the slate industry for their highway materials.
“There are hundreds of people that live in Poultney, and surrounding towns, whose livelihoods depend on slate quarrying,” Donaldson wrote. Harry Van Meter, chairman of the Pawlet Planning Commission, together with Zoning Administrator Hal Wilkins urged the Legislature to come up with a new set of guidelines for slate quarries, instead of removing the exemption in its entirety.
“The Town of Pawlet salutes our quarry owners and operators for their conscientious and diligent adherence to good practice standards of manufacture and for their strict adherence to the regulations of Act 250,” the letter reads. “We must state that without relief or exemption from more restrictive regulations our quarry businesses will become unprofitable and may not survive the enactment of these regulations.”
Ronald Bremer, chairman of the Wells Select Board, wrote that the slate quarries helped improve town buildings and roads out of charity, and over the years have dedicated time, skill and resources that helped preserve the town’s infrastructure.
“We can not afford to lose this part of Vermont’s history, culture and way of life,” Bremer wrote.
Act 250 has provided enough headaches for Fair Haven, the Board of Selectmen said, as two businesses had decided against operating in the town because Act 250 was so drawn-out and expensive.
“This change will, in the best case scenario, further obstruct economic growth in the State, and worst case, cost the State hundreds of Jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity,” the board wrote. “Sadly, as is the case so often, the burden of this change will be borne by the poorest communities that just do not have the resources to cope with this type of government intrusion into their already established businesses.”
Castleton Town Manager Mike Jones and Select Board Chairman James Leamy said the quarries remained an integral part of their communities, and saved the day when weather brought havoc to the roads.
The roads suffered in Hubbardton, too, and Select Board Vice Chairwoman and Town Road Commissioner Janet Morey wrote that they were only able to remedy the horrific mud season because a local quarry owner was willing to get crushed stone to them immediately, enabling emergency vehicles to pass through.
“Can we really afford to lose more of our local businesses? Morey asked. “Can we afford to lose access to local services? Can we afford to lose the face of who and what Vermont is?”
Rep. Butch Shaw argued in favor of the current exemptions to the laws on slate quarries.
“Eliminating the grandfather clause would not resolve any issues perceived now,” Shaw wrote in a letter from earlier this month. “Existing regulations from ANR, ATF, Act 250, local zoning laws, professional regulation, and general social behavior could be utilized in addressing existing problems.”
But in a letter from Castleton resident Lou Magnani, he argued that the existing regulations actually don’t prevent slate quarries from reopening old quarries near peoples’ homes and damaging foundations.
“The regulatory agencies they cite do nothing to protect their neighbors from abuses some of the ‘bad apples’ enjoy lording over them,” Magnani wrote. “They are not constrained by law and some operators use that knowledge to intimidate, harass and quiet their neighbors. And while they do so, our true property values decline yet our town assessments do not.”
On April 5, Amy Sheldon, chairwoman of the Commission on Act 250, released a draft letter in which she required slate quarry operators, property owners adjacent to the quarries, and town representatives to come to the table and develop an individualized plan with the Act 250 district coordinator by Nov. 30 of this year.
The plan included advice received from District 1 Coordinator William Burke in a hearing on April 2.
The “stakeholder” meetings would be facilitated by the District 1 Environmental District Commission, which serves Rutland County, and would discuss hours of operation, traffic limits, blasting limits and notice requirements to produce a permit for mining operations in existing quarries.
“If a registered slate quarry agreed to operate under these conditions, application for the permit would be a minor application under the Act 250 process and would therefore be approved within 15 days, unless a hearing was requested,” Sheldon said. “This process would lead to the permitting of slate quarries, while making it predictable for slate quarry operators.”
The District 1 Environmental Commission is comprised of Chairman Joshua Terenzini, members Mary Shaw and John Casella, and alternates John Bloomer and Devon Fuller.
Joyce Fagan serves as the district’s natural resource board technician, and William Burke as its coordinator.
On April 2, District 1 Coordinator William Burke, who was tasked with writing the legislation implemented in 1995, said his copy wasn’t originally accepted by the commission.
“I first developed a proposed registration application that included detailed documentation of the history and physical location of each hole in the ground,” Burke wrote. “I was informed by then Executive Director Michael Zahner that the proposed registration was deemed unduly burdensome by the industry, and a pro forma registration was substituted.”
Burke said he’s heard few complaints over the years regarding the quarry operators, but for the people like Jeff and Kristen Silverman and Kim and Josh Gaschel, there were absolutely no protections in the event the slate industry took their quarrying too far.
“The problem rests not with the responsible operators — whom you have heard from — but the potential for the next 50 years and beyond that literally anyone else — including rogue operators or “cowboys” will be free to reopen any of those 400 holes at any time in the future,” Burke said.
Sheldon alleged that the committee shared the environmental concerns voiced by nearby property owners, and sought a resolution comfortable for all.
“The Committee believes that the citizens of the slate region will be able to come together and discuss concerns and arrive at common ground,” Sheldon wrote. “This industry remains important to the District 1 region and the State as a whole.”