hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial June 2019



Ground rules needed for slate quarrying


One of the chief selling points of zoning and planning laws is the idea that government oversight of land use gives a measure of protection to landowners large and small.

As we’ve seen in many cases over the years, the devil is the details of land-use laws, and sometimes these laws wind up requiring ugly development patterns that yield dysfunctional communities.

But the minimum expectation is that if someone buys a home in a community with even modest land-use regulations, she is unlikely to wake up and find that an industrial facility has moved in next door and devalued her investment in her property.

Zoning and planning laws provide the public with notice about new development proposals. Homeowners have to be told development proposals in their neighborhoods. The laws provide for at least some public input and oversight, and they also spell out rules that provide predictability for developers and businesses.

So it seems unbelievable that in Vermont, where the passage of Act 250 nearly five decades ago established a pioneering system of statewide land-use regulations, someone could live in a home for nearly a decade and one day wake up to find drilling and blasting going on next door – with little or no advance warning and seemingly no government oversight.

Yet that’s just what did happen to Kristin Silverman and her family. They bought a home next to a long-dormant slate quarry in Poultney in 2008 and were shocked when the quarry suddenly came back to life in 2017. By Silverman’s account, blasting was under way seven days a week, as early as 5:30 a.m., cracking their home’s foundation and filling their well water with sediment.
As a story in this issue details, slate quarries have been largely exempt from Act 250’s requirements since the early 1990s – even though the law applies to every other type of mining and quarrying operation. Now a bipartisan legislative panel, spurred by stories like Silverman’s, has recommended doing away with the slate industry’s exemption.

Quarry operators, who would face new costs and permitting requirements under Act 250, are lobbying hard to preserve the exemption. New regulation, they warn, could lead to job losses and cutbacks in an industry that creates millions of dollars of economic activity annually in Rutland County. In the Slate Valley that runs along the western edge of the county and into New York, quarrying has been a way of life since the 1850s.

At a time when Vermont’s population is shrinking and graying, it’s certainly reasonable for legislators to try to avoid overly burdensome regulation on a long-established industry.
But the status quo is unacceptable. Yes, many quarry owners behave responsibly and show consideration for their neighbors. But as legislators have learned over the past year, the Silvermans aren’t the only homeowners who’ve found themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous operators. And under the current system, some 400 dormant slate pits from West Pawlet to Fair Haven can be reactivated at any time without notice.

A possible compromise floated in April would make slate quarry operators eligible for an expedited Act 250 permit if they agreed in advance to individualized plans that establish notice requirements and set limits on hours of operation, traffic and blasting.
That would be a huge improvement over the current state of affairs.

June 2019 Mark Wilson cartoon


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