Turnout for the public hearing on the Barber gravel pit last Wednesday was heavy, reflecting the intense interest that had arisen over the matter. Bill Johnston, the planning board chair, described how the APA had passed jurisdiction to the town after Erwin Barber's licence came up for renewal last summer. He also read some communications he'd received, both from those who have noise and safety concerns about the trucks coming into the village where Stevenson Road meets Main Street, and from those who wished to express support for Erwin and his business.
After that, Erwin gave a brief history of the enterprise. He noted that the gravel pit had opened around 1920, that he had bought it in 1968, and that in 2003 he had leased it to Willsboro excavator John Sheehan, who does numerous jobs in and around Westport. John then briefly described his operation of the pit.
Bill opened the hearing up to public comment, and we heard from no fewer than 16 people, which gives a good idea of the interest level.
The first speaker was Jack Buttimer, one of our newer retired residents on Stevenson Road who are concerned about noise and safety. He said he was worried by the perception that he and the others were targeting the gravel pit, and he further reassured everyone that they were not opposing renewal of the licence. His comments were gracious and seemed fairly well-received.
Unfortunately, after that good start, the wheels came off the truck. Like Jack Buttimer, the third speaker was one of the concerned Stevenson Road retirees. But where Jack sought to reassure and to unify, the third speaker took a different tack.
Among other things, he tried to paint John Sheehan as an outsider who has less right to do business here than the speaker himself has to live out his retirement in the perfect postcard he thought he'd found when he moved here. He knew quite well that one underlying tension at work was the old "local" vs. "non-local" one. But instead of reaching out across that painful social divide, as Jack Buttimer did, this speaker tried to twist it and exploit it. There was a lot of bad feeling in the room.
What makes the divisive rhetoric especially unfortunate is the timing, since we're all trying so very hard to pull together as a community-locals, new retirees, people who've settled here to start businesses, summer people, whoever. And we've been doing quite well so far, as the many other positive and civil contributions that night demonstrate. But some damage has been done to that process. Our job now is to face it and repair it.