The following is an opinion piece, my opinion, and it is of no reflection on any of my official and non official affiliations in town.
Picture this, there I was sitting on the grass with Wayne in the park on a beautiful sunny evening enjoying a delicious cheeseburger, cup of lemonade and a couple of friends who stopped by to chat. They wanted to know what was happening on West Road. I was mid sentence in being extremely careful to remain very neutral on the subject when another person dropped in and angrily interrupted with, "You just don't want it in your backyard" and "You need to know the facts!" I never did get another word in as the lecture ensued; but that exchange triggered something in me; and upon much internal debate I have decided to offer my opinion separate of my formal collaborative opinions.
It does not escape my attention that West Road and the roads that branch off from West Road with the exception of a few landowners, is an area deprived of economic vitality. And I wonder how it is that these sorts of undesirable projects continue to be proposed for areas where residents are least able to defend their interests.
In a state where a high priority is placed on housing people in rural areas with marginal resources, certain statutes such as the relatively new VT state Development Soils (19V.S.A. 6604c) all but guarantee in municipalities without local control to defend them, a disproportionate impact on lands resided on by marginal income rural owners and their tenants.
We moved to Vernon during its Vermont Yankee days of prosperity. Perhaps such weighted grand list industries also served to stave off the municipalities' demand for additional economic resources; on the other hand, perhaps it is our deep rooted heritage in agriculture and in the understanding of a need to conserve our heritage that made land stewardship a priority and an integral part of who we are. In either case, Vernon is blessed with open and low density developed lands.
There is another story to be told here and that is one of natural resources and the partnership of give and take from the land. Forestry and mining for example have seemingly peacefully coexisted in Vernon for generations. I say seemingly, because these natural resource industries must be implemented with careful balance and an eye towards reclamation if Vernon is to sustain a working and livable landscape. This is where the VT Agency of Natural Resources and Vermont's environmental law Act 250 come into play; and who Vernon has abdicated much of its future and certainly the future of the residents of West Road to.
Vernon does not have local zoning. Vernon operates instead with a 2018 town plan generated by our Planning Commission and approved by the town. A town plan is what lays the groundwork for zoning should the town choose to establish zoning. The town's plan in of itself, to my knowledge, has little if any legal bearing.
There is a general sentiment in Vernon that people who own property should be able to do what they want with their land and a fear that zoning will strip that right away from them. My contention is this, that unless the land is conserved by other entities, this approach to development places all of the power of land use decisions and therefore the town's future, into the hands of the state and large property owners.
Our 2018 town plan identifies the future use of the proposed solid waste / development soils site on West Road as rural residential; not as commercial / industrial nor as a town resource; but without local zoning, the rights of one landowner outweighs the needs and interests of the rest of the landowners in that area. This is in spite of the fact that our town views this area as rural residential and not as a permanent storage site for soils contaminated with above background levels of lead, arsenic and carbons. To the tune of 5000 tons of soil a year for ten years (permit parameters), nothing that disturbs that soil will ever be permitted on that land again.
The state expert at the public meeting reminded me that, "It's a gravel pit." when I questioned if there would be low impact or zero impact on migratory and residential wildlife if the permit was granted.
Is it a gravel pit, or is it someone's backyard, their water source, their land value, their health and mental wellbeing? Is it a gravel pit or is it a place adjacent to farm crops and where children are raised nearby. Is it a gravel pit or a place where wildlife once thrived and passed through? Is it land that will be reclaimed or land that will store the waste of a society that refuses to recognize that we are at a tipping point and running out of places to put our waste.
I ask you this, what is the cost benefit? We can't even without zoning in place, set forth an impact fee structure designed to reserve money to address future unknowns, accidents or post permit management. Is the only solution we have for development soils to disperse them to lesser contaminated sites not adequately regulated by local ordinances and to areas resided in by people with marginal resources to protect themselves? The state refutes all liability for negative impacts from permits issued. With what will the town and its residents bring legal action should the unforeseen happen?
Furthermore; would a first in the state permit like the one being proposed by LaRock to the Agency of Natural Resources for West Road stand a chance of passing next to Fox Hill, Central Park, Hemlock Road, Laurel Ledges, The Village or even a large block of land formerly farmed?
It is my hope that that the decision on this permit and others to come, takes into account our town plan and the compounded, disproportionate...INDEED disproportionate impact that these sorts of projects have on those who can least afford to defend their interests.
Not in my backyard? I'm sure that given the choice, nobody chooses to live next to industrial waste. Who in the hell would? While I know that we must carefully weigh issues for their pros and cons and then pick our battles, I want to let the people of Vernon know this; don't rest your head at night believing that these things won't be coming to a neighborhood near you. Vernon has work to do before we sleep soundly, we must restore balance by passing zoning.