CUMBERLAND – The town’s voters will decide Tuesday whether to ban commercial gravel pits in rural residential zones in response to a controversy over a gravel operation in West Cumberland.

The town halted a gravel operation in September on land owned by Elvin and Randy Copp on Upper Methodist Road because excavation was being done without proper permits, said Town Manager Bill Shane.

The Town Council imposed a six-month moratorium on new gravel pit applications in November, then extended it through June to allow for the referendum.

“We don’t feel gravel pits are an appropriate business in a residential neighborhood because of the noise, dust and other environmental impacts,” said Joyce Baughan, a Blackstrap Road resident who is a member of the Cumberland Environmental Action Network.

The network gathered more than 600 signatures to get the question on the ballot. It’s the first citizen-initiated referendum to change an ordinance in the town’s history, Shane said.

Rural residential zones cover about 80 percent of the town, Shane said, but the Copps’ 48-acre parcel is “probably the last place where a serious gravel operation could happen.”

If voters approve the ban, it will remove “excavation of land” from the list of permitted uses in rural residential zones, as outlined in the town’s zoning ordinance.

The zoning allows the extraction of topsoil, rock, sand, gravel and other earth materials with a special permit that may be granted annually and is renewable through the Board of Appeals. It doesn’t apply to excavation for building construction or other activities that typically are allowed with a building permit. It also doesn’t apply to moving dirt from one portion of a property to another, or the removal of less than an acre of topsoil in a year.

The proposed change wouldn’t affect existing gravel excavation and processing operations in the town’s industrial zone, Shane said. It also wouldn’t affect farms.

“Agricultural uses are highly protected at the local and state levels,” he said.

Randy Copp contends he wasn’t running a gravel operation when the town stopped work on his property last fall. He was clearing land, building a road and putting in a foundation for a family home that he got a permit to build two years ago, he said. He plans to expand a modular school building he has moved to the site.

Copp said he has been working on the land for about four years, clearing about 30 acres and preparing it for animal pastures and other uses. He said he would like to remove gravel in the future, reshape the property and create a house lot for his young son when the time comes. The process could take a decade or more, depending on economic factors, he said.

“Everything I’ve done is within my rights as a property owner with a building permit,” Copp said. “My neighbors are trying to control land they don’t own and take away my property rights. This is one of the nicest pieces of property in Cumberland. I just want to make the land usable. It’s not going to be a perpetual (gravel) operation.”

If the ban is approved, Copp said, he will consider selling the land to a developer.

The council’s ordinance subcommittee has recommended that gravel operations continue to be allowed in rural residential zones, but only under restrictive contract zoning. If the ban is rejected, the council will vote June 20 on the contract zoning proposal, Shane said.

That would be little consolation to supporters of the ban.

“We have no faith that (the Copps) would follow a contract zone because they were operating without proper permits to start with,” Baughan said. “The town has a part-time code enforcement officer and we don’t want to be in a position of monitoring and snitching on our neighbors.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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