Looming regulatory change shakes Sanford gravel business

The gravel pit shared by R. Pepin & Sons Inc. and Sanford’s Genest Concrete could be affected by pending regulatory changes. Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

Geologically speaking, nature has given Sanford a pair of good hands.

When the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, they dragged down piles of sand and gravel, leaving much of it around what is now the Yorkshire city of 22,000.

Mining for mineral wealth has been the cornerstone of Sanford’s economy for decades. Today, these deposits support six gravel and placer mining businesses and hundreds of jobs. But some businesses worry that potential changes in zoning and other regulations could erode local industry.

The rule change was initially welcomed.

Gravel and sand companies have been eager to dismantle Sanford’s old permitting system, which required them to obtain new operating permits every five years following an exhaustive, time-consuming process.

“It’s expensive and it’s stressful,” said Matthew Pepin, who runs Sanford’s fourth-generation family business, R. Pepin & Sons Inc., with his brother. The 50-employee company sells gravel and sand for construction work, produces concrete mixes and manufactures precast concrete products such as stairs and Jersey guardrails.

Pepin said the cost of obtaining a new permit could exceed $100,000 for soil testing and the legal work of drafting new documents. The pressure comes from not knowing whether a new license will eventually be issued – and therefore, whether R. Pepin & Sons will be able to continue operating.

Pepin was therefore pleased to learn a few years ago that Sanford might abandon its permitting process and instead issue annual gravel and bunker permits. Does he feel it now? Be careful what you wish for.

The city’s licensing philosophy would help businesses like his, “but in return, in our view, they really went too far,” Pepin said.

Last month, he sent a five-page letter to the Sanford Planning Commission outlining concerns about proposed changes to the city’s mining zoning rules. Changes under consideration include new standards for land reclamation, restrictions on excavation in water districts, and a reduction in excavation from 20 acres to 10 acres.

Similar letters also came from the leaders of two other companies with operations in Sanford: Chris Genest of Genest Concrete Works and Larry Grondin of RJ Grondin & Sons, who wrote “on behalf of the mineral mining industry in Sanford, Maine” letter.

Pepin wrote that his firm “hopes they will work with the planning council to come up with a new bylaw that works for everyone, and does know that will involve some concessions.”

“So far we’ve found that this has become such a significant overhaul of the existing Act that if some of these provisions were passed, our businesses would be at serious risk of being forced to close.”

Work in progress

City manager Steven Buck said the new rules are still being drafted by a working group and may not be presented to the planning commission until the end of January. After the board reviews the proposal and makes any changes, the proposed permit ordinance will require council approval, likely for a vote in March or April, he said.

Buck said the licenses don’t require extensive preparation for a five-year license and are more like a checklist used to determine whether a business is in compliance with the rules. That should make it easier and less costly for companies to stay compliant, he said, because any problems can be identified and corrected more quickly.

He noted that in crafting the new rules, the Sanford task force is drawing on local regulations in more than two dozen Maine towns, as well as statewide regulations from the Environmental Protection Department.

Gravel and sand mining are foundational businesses in Sanford and the city has no interest in hindering them, Barker said. The industry directly employs hundreds of people and works with contractors who provide work for hundreds more.

“It’s a pillar industry in Sanford,” he said, “one of the foundational industries that built this city.”

Still, the relationship between gravel pit operators and residents has not always been smooth.

Six years ago, for example, Pepin’s company proposed digging a pit on Bernier Road, but some neighbors objected that the road was too narrow and out of the way for industrial operations.

But Pepin and an opponent sat down to craft a deal to limit summer operations, traffic volumes and truck speeds. The compromise eased residents’ concerns, and the new mine was approved by the Planning Commission.

Gravel and placer operators believe the best way to support the industry is with rules that mirror DEP’s statewide statute, said Genest, whose family business has been in business for nearly a century.

The standards “are working well statewide,” Genest said. Everyone in the industry understands the rules and their rationale and is used to operating within them, he said.

Both Genest and Pepin say setbacks are an example. Under state regulations, mining operations must set back 100 feet from adjacent property lines, but Sanford proposed creating a 300-foot setback. In recent hearings with the city task force, industry members said there was no need for a bigger setback — city officials have agreed, reverting to the current 100-foot requirement.

The draft rules have not yet been rewritten to reflect this change, but will be. Barker encouraged business owners and the public to wait until the final proposals are brought to the Planning Commission before weighing in.

R. Pepin & Sons Inc.’s gravel pit Genest Concrete is one of six such mines in Sanford. Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

He acknowledged that the city’s proposed rules to protect water sources from mining operations are a bit stricter than state rules. But Sanford is particularly sensitive to water issues. According to Buck, the Maine Turnpike Authority was supposed to help create wetland areas in the city to offset the environmental impact of highway widening in the early 2000s. But the project ended up polluting a town.

Authorities had to pay for the new well to be drilled, an incident that left many in the city concerned that their water supply might be at risk, Barker said. New rules on excavating near wells and aquifers are a response, he said.

Genest and Pepin say they are also sensitive to these concerns, but have their own.

For example, the companies see the danger of new, stricter “phasing” rules that limit operators to excavating one area at a time and doing remedial work before moving on to another part of the mine.

Pepin said such regulations could make it difficult to meet customer orders — gravel for new road projects, for example, might be easier to dig in areas that are not currently being dug.

This kind of rulemaking needs industry input to be effective, he said.

“As an industry, we felt like we didn’t have a chance to be heard,” Pepin said. “We’ve got big, big competitors. There’s something to be said for smaller players who are still owned by locals.”

Genest said Sanford needs to recognize that it has one of the best gravel and placer mining areas in the state, and that rules should be in place to allow the resource to be used while addressing neighborhood and environmental concerns.

He said he worries that a relatively simple change in how gravel pits are authorized could turn into a rewrite of the industry’s rules, with little flexibility.

“We’re not done yet, but if (the regulation) were brought up now, I wouldn’t accept it,” Genest said. “They’re definitely taking this opportunity to look at everything, which I guess was unexpected. All we wanted (to change) was a five-year extension, but it turned into something more.”

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