It may not have been a total surprise, but the letter was still distressing to over 70 residents of the South Pond neighborhood accessed by Lake Road. That narrow lane is a private road maintained by the Town Highway Department. It passes through a 74-acre parcel on which sand and gravel had been excavated sporadically until recent years.
The letter, from an attorney representing Lake Road Materials LLC (LRM), was hand-delivered on February 1. It stated that LRM had purchased the sand pit property, and on March 1 any permission to cross that land and to use the private road would be rescinded.
In 2014, the Zoning and Planning Commission (ZPC) had approved a permit for LRM to reopen excavation on the property, Residents formed the Congamond Lakes Environmental Protection Organization (CLEPO) and appealed to the State Superior Court for a restraining order. They won that appeal in 2015, but LRM appealed the ruling. Litigation in the Appellate branch of the State Supreme Court has continued for over a year, and a court-recommended settlement conference failed.
Now, in mid-February after considerable litigation, the abutter who had agreed to be the required complainant in CLEPO’s appeal has withdrawn from their joint action. In a bulletin that went public on Facebook, CLEPO announced to its supporters that their former partner had discharged the Farmington lawyer who had jointly represented CLEPO and himself and engaged local attorneys McAnaney and McAnaney as counsel.
The legal status of the proposed LRM sand pit project seems unclear. CLEPO states that they believe that their former partner “is likely to settle the case and, in doing so, permit mining.” CLEPO adds that they are reviewing their options.
The February 1 ultimatum appears to have been a tipping-point development in the troubled history of Lake Road, whose problems date back over half a century to the closing of the connection between Lakeside Road, off of Griffin Road, and Lake Road itself. That closing interrupted a long loop off Copper Hill Road and created two “dead-end” neighborhoods.
The ZPC had based its 2014 approval on the belief that the sand pit had been “grandfathered,” as it had opened in the 1930s, prior to 1954, the year they believed the first zoning in Suffield was established. But CLEPO offered proof that zoning began in 1932, and sand excavation in the Lake Road region was not permitted by the earlier regulations. (It’s not permitted by current regulations, either.) The Superior Court judge found that the sand pit operation had been an unapproved use since its opening.
What a new court ruling or court-approved settlement now would constitute is unpredictable, but if the sand pit were allowed to reopen, it seems likely that conditions imposed in the 2014 permit would still prevail. These included a list of restrictions as to hours of operation, depth of excavations, and other operational limitations, all intended to mitigate the disturbance to residents and Mother Nature. The 2014 approval was also conditioned on the relocation of Lake Road to assure residents’ access, a move LRM had originally offered.
Soon after the February 1 letter, Christine Ayotte, speaking for CLEPO, said, “We are dismayed, but not surprised, that LRM has chosen to threaten access that has been continuously used by the neighborhood for decades . . .” First Selectman Melissa Mack stated that the Town would not allow barriers to be placed on the road, as barriers would prevent necessary health and safety access. She was hopeful that the parties would reach a satisfactory settlement. Scott Guilmartin, one of the principals of LRM, stated, “We remain optimistic that this issue will be settled satisfactorily.”
On February 17, following the abutting landowner’s independent action, CLEPO held a meeting in the Ebb’s Corner Fire Station, where residents heard First Selectman Mack assure them they would not lose access to their homes. Ayotte reported that over half of the affected landowners were present, and everyone wanted to fight their battle to the end.