CUMBERLAND — The Town Council voted unanimously Monday to send changes in gravel pit rules to a June 14 referendum.
The referendum was triggered by a petition drive by a citizens’ group, the Cumberland Environmental Action Network. Members collected more than the 591 signatures required for the petition to be certified.
The petition calls for a gravel extraction ban in the town’s two Rural Residential zones. Gravel extraction is currently permitted in those zones and in the town’s Industrial zone.
The Town Council in March extended to June 28 a moratorium on new applications for gravel pits and water extraction sites. Last November it enacted a 180-day moratorium on such projects.
Meanwhile, the Planning Board in part reviewed a Town Council ordinance subcommittee proposal that the town continue to allow gravel extraction as it is now permitted, but only through contract zoning. The board recommended the proposal.
But if approved, the referendum would take precedence over the proposal reviewed by the Planning Board.
While the Planning Board’s recommendation is ready for Town Council action, extension of the moratorium allows the council to postpone that action until the referendum is decided.
If the referendum fails, the council at its June 20 meeting could adopt the new zoning language recommended by the Planning Board. If the referendum passes, it will take effect June 24 and there will be no need for any council action, Shane said. The council could also end the moratorium on June 20.
The moratorium was instituted after Elvin Copp and his son, Randy Copp, expressed interest in a gravel pit and water extraction site on land Elvin owns off Upper Methodist Road, which borders the Maine Turnpike and the Falmouth town line. They later chose not to apply for a permit until after a town review.
Town Manager Bill Shane has said clear-cutting and earth removal occurred on the site without town permits. He also said neighbors showed him photographic evidence of the elimination of a beaver pond, and that the town has no knowledge of a Maine Department of Environmental Protection permit or a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife letter that granted permission for the pond to be eliminated.
A stop work order was issued last fall after allegations were made concerning the activities, and the town notified DEP of the matter, Shane said. He said in February that the Copps are working with DEP on a mitigation plan.
DEP issued a notice of violation to the Copps stemming from concerns about erosion and sedimentation controls at the property, Randy Copp has said, but he also claimed action has been taken to address the DEP concerns.
He said in February that a forestry permit had been obtained, “and every stick of wood that came off that property has been accounted for.”
Copp said then that he believed any material removal from the site was done legally, and that “we are whole with the DEP on all the permits we need as of today.”
On Monday he gave a presentation showing how former gravel pit sites have been improved through revegetation, which he said he wants to do on his family’s land.
He noted that while his neighbors have said 80 percent of Cumberland residents could have gravel pits in their backyards, “this is simply not true. Only approximately 10 percent of the town has sand and gravel deposits. So 80 percent of the residents could not be affected by a gravel pit. However, 80 percent of the residents in town will lose their property rights if this referendum passes.”
He said the majority of sand and gravel deposits are located in the area of, and west of, the Cumberland Fairgrounds.
Copp said his family owns about 47.5 acres of land in the area eyed for a gravel pit, but “with the setbacks, we can only work approximately 18 1/2 acres.”
He said there would be a minimum 200-foot setback from all property lines, and that only three residences abut the property. He also noted that buffers would be provided to control noise and view of the construction operation.
“This operation will not adversely impact the neighbors,” Copp said, also saying the project would not contaminate groundwater, is not located on an aquifer, and would have to adhere to strict guidelines set by DEP and the town.
“I am not asking for a zone change, or for the council to introduce a new use to the ordinance,” Copp said. “I am simply asking for permission to do something that is allowed, and has been allowed forever.”
Joyce Baughan of Blackstrap Road said Copp has said it would be 20 years until his property is reclaimed, and “we don’t know what reclamation is going to look like in 20 years, because it’s changed drastically in the last 20 years.”
But she said the bigger problem is industrial activity taking place in a residential neighborhood, and that more people than just the abutters would be affected by the project; for example, the dump trucks going to and from the gravel pit.
“We should not have industrial activities in a residential zone any longer,” Baughan said. “Fifty years ago that may have been the way things were, but 50 years ago, as a friend of mine said, it was OK to beat your kids. Things change.”
Councilor Steve Moriarty said the network’s efforts mark a historic moment. He said that when Cumberland’s Town Charter was first adopted in 1972, it allowed for referendums to overturn actions taken by the Town Council; the referendum concerning bonding money for work on Route 88 is a recent example of this. But he noted that there was originally no way for residents to propose an ordinance change on their own.
A Charter Commission in the mid-1990s created an “initiative provision,” Moriarty said, so that residents could petition for ordinance changes, and with a sufficient number of signatures the proposal goes to a public vote, as will occur June 14.
“This upcoming referendum marks the first time since the charter was changed in ’95 that this has ever been utilized by anyone in town,” Moriarty said. “So I commend the petitioners in this case for first of all becoming aware of their rights under the charter, and secondly and more importantly for exercising them.”