Steven Callahan Letter

Lamoine resident and author of NY Times best seller Adrift, Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea and consultant for the movie Life of Pi has weighed in on Lamoine’s gravel issue in this letter he wrote to the Board of Selectmen, dated 30 April, 2014:

Dear Select People,

CallLetter1Sand and gravel open-pit mining in Lamoine has become a very hot-button issue. This should be no surprise because, basically, pit operators, especially non-resident large-pit operators have proven themselves to be very bad neighbors for many years now, and the problem continues to grow worse. Many residents who have no financial interests in these pits, especially those of us who live bordering or near large pits, feel exploited and under attack. These pits primarily benefit only the pit operators while imposing significant liabilities on Lamoine citizens.   Yes, we all understand the need for sand and gravel, but to use that, as a rationalization to let pit operators create their own regulation is a dog that won’t hunt. Let us be honest; enough material comes out of pits in Lamoine in a year to do all the groundwork ever done in this town, probably many times over. Are we obliged to become an industrial wasteland to provide sand and gravel to the whole state, and in some cases, out of state? I really don’t think so.

I’ve been a Lamoine resident since 1977 when my wife and I purchased an old farmhouse from Joe Hodgkins, a member of one of the oldest families in Hancock County, and forty acres that we have sought to improve. The original property (prior to Joe’s selling a lot off the west side) bordered a sand and gravel pit owned originally by Aubrey Davis and now owned by Goodwin, recently referred to as the Marlboro Pits. The active pit rests close to our line and Mr. Goodwin owns additional property abutting a substantial section of our south line.

CallLetter2We had no problems with Aubrey and his small-pit operations, but as soon as Mr. Goodwin bought the land abutting ours and began expanding the old pit, it became a nightmare. When he purchased additional land on our south side, Goodwin immediately clear cut the property, including every tree on our abutting line, resulting in substantive blowdown damage to our land. The cutters also left huge amounts of brush both on the line and into our land. It’s my understanding that neither the cutting of all trees on a line or leaving brush all over it is legal. At the least, it is indicative of his total lack of concern for neighbor’s interests. Noise from ordinary pit operations carries easily to our house site about a half mile away, and on weekends it actually gets worse because people use the pit as a shooting gallery. With automatic weapons fire and even some kind of cannon, it often sounds like a war zone, literally. Bullets have flown well past the property lines, and I am afraid to walk on the back portions of my property in summer.

CallLetter3From my view, however, erosion of soil, reduction of nearby property values, and the threat to water remain the biggest costs of strip mining for sand and gravel. Standards in some states to reclaim all pits at a 4:1 (horizontal run per foot of height) ratio well exceed Maine standards, but it is hard to find any old pit walls in Lamoine that even meet the 2.5:1 ratios required by Maine’s DEP. Perhaps setbacks from abutting property lines might be more effectively related to pit depth than a fixed number, but it seems obvious by just looking at many pit walls that crawl up to current setbacks that the eventual sloping of these walls will erode into neighboring land.   In short, many pit operations, even if meeting current regulations, amount to the taking of abutters’ lands. Also, little is known about the underground waterways in Lamoine. On our side of the knoll that separates us from the Goodwin pit, one can tap into water in as little as 16 feet below the surface in selected spots. There also is wetland on the crown of this property with waterways close to the pit line that might easily be drained should pit operations accidentally tap into them. Finally, it is clear to anyone who has lived anywhere around a pit that land located anywhere within the vicinity is significantly reduced in value, if not becoming completely unmarketable.   I sure wouldn’t buy it. Would you?

CallLetter4These issues, as well as pollution and heavy-truck roadway problems, are well known. What is a mystery is why the town does not assess these pits at a rate much higher rate than other land that is being preserved or actually improved, especially as pit land actual value erodes as mining operations continue, which severely reduces tax value and income over time.

The bigger mystery, though, is why the town does not see fit to fight for its legal right to regulate the pits as its citizens see fit, even to ban pits outright should the citizens so choose. If one were to assume that the town had no right to regulate or even prohibit heavy industry and open-pit mining, on what legal ground does the town have to regulate land use in any way at all? It makes absolutely no sense that the town prohibits, for example, manufacturing facilities in the rural and agricultural zone but allows pits. Many manufacturing operations can easily be made unobtrusive and quiet with minimal impact on the environment and neighboring land values. Lamoine even requires housing developments over a certain size to set aside land for public use and prohibits building tall houses. In fact, the town regulates personal property in numerous ways that are much more stringent than the most onerous envisioned for sand and gravel pits. By not defending its right to regulate these pits, or even ban them, does not Lamoine open itself up to multiple lawsuits by anyone seeking to undertake operations that are less destructive in the same zones, or for that matter by residents whose properties are damaged by mining operations or are made to adhere to other town regulations? Is this not unequal treatment under the law?

CallLetter5In addition, one need only look at the town map to see that almost none of the town is zoned Residential, including “down town” East Lamoine, the Seal Point Road, and other areas that fit the definition of densely populated. If these areas are not Residential, why not? The proposed alteration of the land-use ordinance to prohibit further pit operations from the Rural-Agricultural Zone only rectifies the discrepancies between how these zones are actually used. If this proposed alteration is not approved, perhaps it is time to re-zone the town to put a much greater part if it into the Residential Zone.

It seems clear to this resident that large-pit operators have declared war on Lamoine and its citizens, not only via the damage they do to their own and neighboring properties but also via their now-dropped lawsuit against the town with the clear threat to re-institute it should they not get their way. So far, the worst of the pit operators have done little but to antagonize their neighbors and leave behind near-useless and valueless land. It’s pretty easy to find old pits in this town, but how many meet standards of reclamation? I’ve seen no sign at all that these operators have any intention except to continue their grab-and-go approach until Lamoine becomes nothing more than a mining town and, eventually, a wasteland.

CallLetter6For many of us, then, even proposed rules do not go nearly far enough. The money set aside for pit reclamation is, I believe, completely inadequate, and the penalties for not reclaiming pits toothless. So what if the town puts a lean on an unclaimed pit; the pit operator has already sucked it dry and so why not just let the town have the hole in the ground? The point is, Lamoine residents already did compromise a great deal to establish some reasonable regulations of open-pit mining yet pit operators insist on additional compromise. We believe we have the right to protect our properties and the character of the town into which we have invested our lives even more than pit operators have a right to exploit their land.

I hope that all pit operators will begin to show some interest in creating a sustainable long-term relationship with the residents of Lamoine, which includes acceptance of reasonable regulation, a prohibition of future pit operations in the Rural and Agricultural Zone, and the creation of an earnest reclamation program for both new and abandoned pits. If, on the other hand, they insist on continuing the onslaught against residents, they are likely to find an increasingly aggressive movement against them.   Simple appeasement of pit-operator demands may not result in the end of legal challenges either, but give rise to more. I would hope that the town Selectpeople and resident small-pit operators realize that those who oppose large and minimally regulated pits actually have been forced into their positions, and that resident-pit operators would be better served by working with other residents, as they always have, rather than against them.

Sincerely,

Steven Callahan