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

Nature dealt Sanford a nice hand, geologically speaking.

When glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, they dragged along piles of sand and gravel and left many of them around what is now this York County city of 22,000 people.

Over decades, digging up that mineral wealth has become a bedrock for Sanford’s economy. The deposits today support a half-dozen gravel and sand mining operations and hundreds of jobs. But some businesses worry that potential changes in zoning and other regulations could erode the local industry.

The rule changes were welcomed at first.

Gravel and sand companies had longed to do away with Sanford’s old permitting system, which mandated that they obtain new operating permits every five years after an exhaustive, time-consuming process.

“It was expensive and also very stressful,” said Matthew Pepin, who with his brother runs R. Pepin & Sons Inc., a fourth-generation family-owned business in Sanford. The 50-employee company sells gravel and sand for construction work, produces concrete mix and makes precast concrete products, such as stairs and Jersey barriers.


Pepin said the expense of obtaining a new permit could total over $100,000, which paid for soil testing and the legal work of drawing up new documents. The stress came from not knowing if a new permit would ultimately be issued – and, consequently, if R. Pepin & Sons could stay in business.

So Pepin was happy to learn a couple of years ago that Sanford might drop its permit process and instead issue annual licenses for working the gravel and sand pits. His feeling now? Be careful what you wish for.

The city’s licensing idea will help businesses like his, “but in return, in our opinion, they’re really overreaching,” Pepin said.

Last month, he sent a five-page letter to the Sanford Planning Board, outlining concerns about proposed changes to the city’s zoning rules for mineral extraction. Among the changes under consideration are new standards for reclaiming land, limits on digging in water supply districts, and reducing the size of excavation areas from 20 acres to 10 acres.

Similar letters have come from leaders of two other companies that do business in Sanford: Chris Genest, of Genest Concrete Works, and Larry Grondin, of R.J. Grondin & Sons, who wrote “on behalf of the mineral extraction industry in Sanford, Maine.”

Pepin wrote that his company “expected that they would be able to work with the Planning Board to make a new ordinance that would work for everyone and did know that this would involve some give and take.”


“So far, we have found that this has become a major overhaul of the existent ordinance to the point where our business is at serious risk of being forced to close if some of these provisions are passed.”


The new rules are still being drafted by a task force, City Manager Steven Buck said, and probably won’t go before the Planning Board before the end of January. After the board looks at the proposal and makes any changes, the proposed licensing regulations would need City Council approval with a potential vote in March or April, he said.

Buck said the licenses wouldn’t require the extensive preparation of the five-year permits and would be more like a checklist to determine whether a business is following the rules. He said that should make it easier and less costly for companies to stay compliant, because any problems can be caught and corrected sooner.

In developing the new rules, he noted, the Sanford task force is drawing upon local ordinances in more than two dozen Maine towns and cities, along with statewide regulations from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Buck said gravel and sand mining are fundamental businesses for Sanford and the city is not interested in hobbling them. The industry directly employs hundreds and works with contractors that provide jobs for hundreds more.


“This is kind of a backbone industry for Sanford,” he said, “one of those foundational industries that built this city.”

Still, the relationship between gravel pit operators and residents hasn’t always been smooth.

For instance, six years ago, Pepin’s company proposed a pit for Bernier Road that some neighbors opposed, saying the road was too narrow and rural for an industrial operation.

But Pepin and an opponent sat down and worked out an agreement restricting summer operations, traffic volumes and truck speeds. The compromise eased residents’ concerns and the new mining site won Planning Board approval.

Gravel and sand mine operators believe the best way to support the industry is to adopt rules that mirror the DEP’s statewide regulations, said Genest, whose family-owned company has been in business for nearly a century.

Those standards “have worked throughout the state quite well,” Genest said. Everyone in the industry understands the rules and their rationale, he said, and are accustomed to operating within them.


An example, both Genest and Pepin said, is setbacks. Under state rules, mining operations had to be set back from neighboring property lines by 100 feet, but Sanford had proposed creating 300-foot setbacks. At a recent hearing with the city task force, industry members said there was no need for the larger setbacks – and city officials have agreed, reverting to the current 100-foot requirement.

The draft rules haven’t been rewritten to reflect that change yet, but will be. Buck encouraged business owners and the public to wait until the final proposal goes to the Planning Board before weighing in.

A gravel pit excavated by R. Pepin & Sons Inc. and Genest Concrete is one of six such mining sites in Sanford. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The city’s proposed rules to protect water sources from mining operations are a bit stricter than state rules, he acknowledged. But Sanford has a particular sensitivity to water issues. According to Buck, the Maine Turnpike Authority was supposed to help create a wetlands area in the city to offset environmental effects of the highway’s widening in the early 2000s. But the project ended up polluting a town well.

The authority had to pay for a new well to be drilled, Buck said, and the incident left many in the city concerned over potential threats to its water supply. The new rules on excavation near wells and aquifers are a response, he said.

Genest and Pepin said they are also sensitive to those concerns, but have worries of their own.

For example, the companies see a danger in new, stricter “phasing” rules, which limit operators to excavating one area at a time and to do remediation work before moving on to another section of a mine.


Pepin said such rules can make it difficult to fill customer orders – for instance, gravel for a new road project might be easier to dig up in an area that’s not currently being excavated.

That kind of rule-making requires industry input to work, he said.

“As an industry, we feel we haven’t had a chance to be heard,” Pepin said. “We have big, big, big competitors. For a small-time player to still be locally owned, there’s something to be said for that.”

Genest said Sanford needs to recognize that it has one of the best areas in the state for gravel and sand mining, and should come up with rules that allow that resource to be used while also responding to neighborhood and environmental concerns.

He said he worries that a relatively simple change in how gravel pits are authorized has turned into a rewriting of industry rules, with little flexibility.

“We’re not done, but as (the ordinance) is proposed right now, I can’t accept it,” Genest said. “They’re definitely taking the opportunity to look at everything, and that was unexpected, I guess. All we wanted was (to change) the five-year renewal, but it’s turned into something more.”

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