SURRY — After a marathon four-hour meeting Aug. 23, the town’s Planning Board approved a permit allowing M.E. Astbury & Son Construction to begin operation at a gravel pit near Morgan Bay Road.
The permit was approved despite numerous concerns raised by residents who showed up to oppose the plan.
Mike Astbury, the pit’s owner, applied for the permit. The plot he intends to mine is located in a land use zone that allows industries such as gravel mining to operate only with approval of the town Planning Board.
Astbury, with his Bangor lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, successfully argued that the industrial use of the gravel pit was permitted because it was “grandfathered,” according to the town’s Unified Development Ordinance.
Lands that were used for industry before the ordinance was adopted were protected under this classification as long as they had not fallen into disuse for more than a year.
Board members said they were bound by law to allow the permit to go through.
“We don’t have a right to say, ‘We don’t like the UDO [ordinance],’” said Planning Board member Phil Frederick. “It’s illegal.”
Hamilton asserted in a written document provided to the Planning Board that the gravel pit, previously owned by George Carter, was in use until October 2016. But abutting residents who attended the meeting challenged that claim, saying it hasn’t been used since the 1980s.
Scarlet Kinney, who owns property adjacent to the pit, said she had bought her house in 1991 and hadn’t seen Carter use the pit until 2006.
Astbury acknowledged that the pit was “used, but not heavily” starting in the 1990s.
“He’s tried to make it appear that it’s grandfathered, but offered no evidence,” said abutting property owner Richard Shute during the meeting.
Those who opposed the application were seeking more time for the board to consider all issues. They asked for a 180-day moratorium, and said they were frustrated by the process as it played out.
“Something good could have happened here and it didn’t,” said neighbor Margaret Blom after the meeting, referencing that the board had an opportunity to take its time with its decision.
“They already made up their minds.”
Kinney told board members during the meeting that they were ignoring rules that worked against Astbury’s proposal.
“You’re choosing which ordinances you’re going to follow and which you’re not,” Kinney said.
Residents highlighted several other points of concern during the discussion. They said gravel trucks traveling along the Morgan Bay Road will be loud and bothersome, that wildlife and vernal pools will be harmed, the values of their homes will decrease, tourists won’t visit and people won’t want to buy homes in Surry.
During the meeting, residents also expressed frustration that they were allowed to speak for only five minutes each, while Astbury and Hamilton had open-ended intervals to make their case and reply to those who opposed the plan.
Planning Board Chairman Bill Barker opened the meeting by saying he wasn’t required by law to let the public speak because the meeting hadn’t been advertised, but he decided to give abutters to the pit five minutes each.
Kinney said during her speaking time that she expected to see her land’s value drop.
“I put every cent I had into this property,” she said, referencing that it was meant to help her retire. “I can’t sell it now… It’s nothing against Mike, but we have rights, too.”
Lucy Leaf, a resident who had looked into the permit, said the Department of Transportation official who signed off on the application was related to Astbury.
She raised the issue of conflict of interest, but no one on the board responded to that concern.
According to an email provided to The Ellsworth American, Leaf had attempted to obtain a copy of the permit application from the town earlier this month. The document is public record, but she wasn’t able to access it.
When she wrote to town officials to inquire about the status, Surry Code Enforcement Officer Tim Ferrell accused her of harassment. He said the document was available.
“Ms. Leaf is engaged in punitive harassment of town personnel,” Ferrell wrote back to Leaf. “Shame on you, Lucy Leaf.”
Blom said she thought the town officials weren’t accustomed to dealing with requests like that, and that gender played a role in Ferrell’s response.
“These guys are not used to having people question them,” she said the day after the meeting. “They were really miffed with Lucy.”
During the meeting, other residents told board members they weren’t looking hard enough at how a gravel pit would affect everyday life. Gravel pits have been an ongoing issue in the town of Lamoine.
“The people of Lamoine have had a long, hard struggle. It’s a quality of life issue,” said resident Carol Shoreborn.
After many residents spoke, Barker said the Planning Board valued their opinions but hadn’t heard hard facts from them, despite being given a packet of information by Leaf with legal responses to the application.
“So far, I’ve heard a lot of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘what-ares,’” Barker said to Leaf during the meeting. “And they [Astbury] have given a lot of facts.”
Barker said he’s not a constitutional lawyer but he believed Astbury had followed the ordinances. The board passed the permit unanimously.
Astbury said he would begin operation within a month and already has a team in place for the work. Normal working hours will be between 7 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
“I’m very pleased that they found that the application was complete,” he said. “I want to be a good neighbor and I’m faithful we can address some concerns.”