A proposed gravel mine exposes conflicting visions of Bristol's future
A loader collects gravel in Burlington
The Lathrop family’s history in Bristol dates back to 1880, when Noah Lathrop purchased a lumber mill in a section of town called the Little Notch. The business thrived until 1925, by which time all the commercial timber had been cut, according to the town’s local history. The shuttering of Noah’s mill led to a decline in Bristol’s population, but the Lathrop family remains one of the most prominent in town.
In the most recent edition of History of Bristol, Vermont, 1762-1980, first published in 1940, Bristol is described as a “little village” in the shadow of “two low mountains, which stand like sentinels” to the south and east of town. According to an early contributor to the book, “a feeling of neighborliness and good fellowship pervades the very atmosphere” in Bristol. In the last few years, however, that local harmony has been threatened by what one town official called a “classic Vermont land-use dispute.”
It all started when Noah’s great-great grandson, Jim, applied for a permit five years ago to open a gravel pit on a 31-acre meadow about a mile from the center of town. Lathrop’s pit would produce twice as much gravel as any of the dozen or so existing gravel-mining operations in the area. His trucks would make 144 trips in and out of the quarry each day, and as much as 7 million tons of sand and gravel would be pulled from the ground over a 50-year period. A state environmental judge called Lathrop’s proposed pit the “largest and most significant” in the area.
But Lathrop’s plans haven’t been well received by a number of Bristol residents and business owners. They’re worried that the scale and location of Lathrop’s proposed pit — and the noise, dust and traffic it generates — will ultimately hurt the town’s image and cause individual property values to decrease.
Leading the opposition is John Moyers, son of acclaimed journalist and PBS commentator Bill Moyers. After graduating from Middlebury College in 1986, Moyers settled in nearby Bristol; his real estate holdings in town are valued at more than $1 million. For five years, Moyers has attended public meetings concerning Lathrop’s permit request. He’s convinced that some town officials are “very hostile” to pit opponents and are looking for a way to approve Lathrop’s application.
“At every public meeting, the people who oppose the pit far outnumber the people who support it,” Moyers said last week by phone from a meditation center in California. “It seems to me that the majority of the planning commission has favored the pit, even though some of them aren’t willing to say so.”
Jim Lathrop, whose family goes back seven generations in Bristol, characterizes opponents of his gravel pit as “flatlanders.” He is frustrated by his critics, who he says want to reinvent a town whose economy has always relied on the extraction of natural resources. His brother Tom runs Lathrop’s Maple Supply, a massive lumber operation on the south edge of town. “They have a different perception of values,” Lathrop says, “and suddenly they want to impose ’em on us.”
Some version of the dispute that is roiling Bristol is playing out in towns across the state, says Noelle Mackay, executive director of Smart Growth Vermont, a nonprofit dedicated to finding ways to foster economic growth that don’t destroy the state’s landscape. Mackay points out that Bristol has attained an enviable mix of working landscape and a vibrant downtown, which means land-use decisions such as the one it now confronts have “long-term consequences.”
Lathrop’s land-use application requires review and approval by the Bristol Zoning Board and the Vermont Environmental Court. But the dispute also involves the Bristol Planning Commission, which is in the process of rewriting the town plan, a document that offers a framework for future development in Bristol.
Right now, the Bristol plan allows for gravel mining in certain areas of town. The question is whether Lathrop’s pit conforms to the plan — a question that will likely be answered in court. In the meantime, the two sides of the battle over the proposed mine are articulating, in essence, two very different visions for the town.
Diane Heffernan owns an 11-acre gravel pit north of town, on Hardscrabble Road. A former member of the Bristol Planning Commission, she’s lived in the town since 1956, when she and husband Francis moved here from Brooklyn to farm. Her daughter, Christine, runs Pine Tree Gardens, a nursery opened by the Heffernans in 1961.
Bristol’s town plan has always been “pretty flexible” on permit applications for gravel mining, Heffernan says. Twenty years ago, she recalls, her family encountered no opposition when they were granted permission to mine for gravel. Until the Lathrop proposal, she notes, “We haven’t had that many controversies.”
Heffernan is sympathetic to Jim Lathrop’s position, although she also understands opponents’ arguments that new housing might be a better use of a 31-acre meadow within walking distance of downtown. The Addison County Regional Planning Commission predicts the area will need 6000 new housing units by 2025; and a survey of Bristol residents two years ago by Smart Growth Vermont found that the affordability of existing housing was a major concern.
Even Lathrop agrees that his land would be ideal for housing — just not until after he’s had a chance to mine gravel from it. “We should keep our economy a working local economy,” he insists. “People got to have jobs, you know. We can’t all wash windows and clean toilets.”
The Heffernans are already preparing for the day when their mine closes. They plan to backfill and re-grade the exposed soil so that it will once again be suitable for farming or residential development. Still, Diane Heffernan says, the subterranean vein of sand and gravel that tracks the Green Mountains is an important resource, and mining it will always be necessary. If town planners, business owners and residents can’t agree on where gravel mining will take place, Heffernan warns, “We’ll be in trouble.”
Moyers was instrumental in pushing through a resolution last year that grants Bristol residents, not its elected officials, the power to approve revisions to the town plan — a blueprint for future development. That activism was precipitated by his concern that planning commission members were rewriting the plan in a way that would allow Lathrop’s mine to go forward at some future point.
Moyers, a former reporter for the Addison Independent, has characterized Lathrop’s approach to permitting as “catch me if you can.” He says Lathrop and his team of consultants have repeatedly altered their proposal without going through the proper procedures. For example, Moyers suggests they’ve used elusive definitions of “crushing” and “mining.” “All along, it’s been a moving target,” he says.
The “town plan” has been flexible, too, Moyers alleges. “I’ve attended quite a few planning commission meetings over these years, and it seems to me . . . that the changes being proposed to the town plan would clear the way for that particular pit in that particular location.”
Tom Wells, a real estate attorney who chairs the commission, suggests that Moyers’ complaint is more of a conspiracy theory than a reasoned argument. “Our process,” he counters, “is more deliberative than John gives us credit for.”
Lathrop’s supporters have their own suspicions — namely, that the local newspaper, the Addison Independent, is in cahoots with pit opponents. Mark Hall, Lathrop’s attorney, says that editorials penned by the Independent’s publisher, Angelo Lynn, sound remarkably similar to speeches John Moyers has made at public hearings on the issue.
Lynn denies that he has taken sides in the dispute between Lathrop and his opponents. He calls Waterbury-based Hall a “hired gun” who is seeking to denigrate pit opponents rather than help the town arrive at a solution. As for his role, Lynn says he just wants the permitting process to be transparent and for the public to have the ultimate say.
“[My] position as an editorial writer,” he says, “has been that the best way to clarify the town plan is to put it up for public vote and let the entire community decide.”
Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, says that while referendums on land-use matters are legal, they aren’t necessarily good public policy. Town plans should preclude the need for special votes on individual projects, he says. Still, Lougee acknowledges, the dispute over Lathrop’s gravel mine won’t be an easy one to resolve.
“It’s a hard decision for the town of Bristol,” Lougee says. “It is a significant impact, and it is a significant resource located very close to their downtown, so I can understand the angst, and the interest.”
Judging by attendance at a couple recent public hearings on Lathrop’s application, the greater interest has been shown by those opposed to Lathrop’s plans. In late April, about 20 residents spoke out against the proposed mine at a Bristol Zoning Board meeting at Holley Hall.
Kevin Harper, who owns the downtown Bristol Bakery & Café, expressed concern that gravel trucks would spew dust onto Main Street, hurting local businesses. He used to own Autumn Harp natural cosmetics, which is still one of Bristol’s biggest employers. Claire Wallace, a local realtor, called the board’s attention to a study that purported to show how gravel extraction reduced one Midwestern town’s property values. Moyers and others argued that mining so much gravel near downtown is not in Bristol’s long-term interests.
Meanwhile, across the aisle, Lathrop sat at a folding table with his attorney and a small group of advisors. Only one resident, Craig Scribner, spoke up on his behalf.
A little later, on the steps of Holley Hall, Scribner acknowledged pit supporters may represent a “silent minority” of town residents.
“Or maybe they’re a majority,” said the long-time Bristol resident. “I don’t know.”
Lathrop’s attorney, Mark Hall, offered his own take on the situation. “The tenor of the opposition is not necessarily reflective of the community,” he says.
Heffernan says that many older Bristol residents watch zoning board hearings on television, but don’t get publicly involved in local political issues. “If you really feel strongly about something, you come out,” she says. “If you don’t, you just hang back.”
One group of elderly men appeared to be more comfortable expressing themselves over coffee at Cubber’s on Main Street. On a recent morning, the 10 or so self-described “Old Farts” appeared to be unfamiliar with the specifics of Lathrop’s pit proposal. But that didn’t stop them from expressing support for it.
“People that own the pit ought to have a right to develop it,” said Merrill Masse, who has been a Bristol resident since 1966. “It’s a basic freedom thing. We’re just losing freedoms in this country right and left.”
Another old-timer pointed out that Bristol has been home to Lathrop’s Maple Supply for years. He dismissed opponents’ fears that a big gravel-mining operation would hurt property values. Another man agreed. “I don’t think property values have dropped,” he said. “If anything, they’ve gone up.” Bristol’s proximity to Middlebury has made the town increasingly attractive to college professors and other professionals.
Sitting across from Masse, George Smith, who runs the Bristol Landfill, said that the majority of people opposed to the pit aren’t Bristol natives and are relatively new to town. “There’s only a few people holding it up,” he said, “but they’re doing it legally, so we can’t do anything.”
Jim Lathrop knows that better than anyone. Two Saturdays ago, he agreed to give a brief tour of the proposed pit site in his red SUV. The tour began on a road that abuts property owned by Greg Moye, whose $73,200 home, which looks out onto the New Haven River, would be one of the closet residences to Lathrop’s mine.
Moye is a local chef and restaurant manager whose family has lived in Bristol since the 1800s. His great-grandfather worked at the Lathrop lumber mill, but today, the entire Moye clan, including his 55-year-old mother, Michelle, opposes Lathrop’s gravel pit.
Michelle said the Lathrop family’s lumber mill has already “ruined” a section of the New Haven River. She offered that the Lathrops possess an arrogant belief that they are entitled to Bristol’s natural resources, and she is skeptical of assurances that the gravel pit won’t do further damage to the river.
“They promise all this stuff,” she said. “But once they get in there? Well, you know how that goes.”
Dressed in soiled jeans and a baseball cap, Lathrop navigated an unpaved road towards the meadow, which offers a pleasant view of the Champlain Valley. He explained that his pit would employ four people, which would be a good thing for Bristol, and that a 200-foot buffer zone around the property would protect the New Haven River from surface runoff.
Lathrop parked at the edge of the meadow, climbed out of the driver’s seat, pulled a thin cigar out of his shirt pocket and lit it. His sons, Justin and Jason, were piloting two massive, yellow loaders around the property. A few yards away, a noise consultant — hired at the request of the zoning board — was taking sound measurements with a microphone. The man’s partner was recording decibel levels in another part of town. Meanwhile, James Dumont, a lawyer representing John Moyers, snapped photographs of the sound test for the record.
The subject of Moyers brings out Lathrop’s prickly side. “We’ve worked all our lives, my family has, to accumulate some pieces of property,” Lathrop said. “My grandchildren are here, my kids are here, my mother’s still here: We intend on staying here! And we don’t like to be told by new-comin’, trust-fund flatlanders what to do with our land. We don’t think it’s correct. ’Cause if we’ve done such a poor job all these years, why do they want to move here now?”
Lathrop says that, while it appears opponents of his pit outnumber supporters, appearances can be deceiving. He says he has heard from hundreds of people who have told him, “Jim, don’t let them knock you over, go for it!”
“People don’t want to go out and fight and carry on in public,” he continued. “They just want to live.”
Lathrop’s sons suggested that several local contractors support the pit but aren’t likely to say so in a public setting. “They’re trying to make a living just like us,” Lathrop says. “We understand that ’cause we’re in business — you learn to shut your mouth on controversial issues.”
After the noise consultant completed his work, Lathrop drove him into town, to a parking lot that abuts the headquarters of the Bristol Historical Society. “I’m sure what I say you don’t agree with,” Lathrop said to the man before driving off. “I guess that’s what makes life interesting.”