Steamboat Springs Government leaders in Routt County are beginning to ask themselves, "How much gravel is enough?"
Confronted with applications for as many as six new gravel pits covering reserves of up to 25 million tons, County Commissioner Ben Beall said this month he won't consider final approval of any new pits until the county planning staff can give him more information about how much gravel the county really needs to meet demand. But that doesn't necessarily mean Beall is opposed to new pits.
"Do we need gravel pits?" Beall asked rhetorically at a hearing for the proposed Camilletti No. 2 pit near Milner on July 25. "We have annual sales right now right at about 1 million tons. Growth isn't going to stop. It isn't about stopping growth. Stopping growth would take place at the planning level, not at gravel pits."
Still, Beall is concerned the county doesn't have enough facts to accurately gauge the impact of five to six new gravel pits coming on line at once.
"There's no guideline for this cumulative impact," Beall said.
Members of Steamboat Springs City Council, although they don't have jurisdiction over the permitting process for the new pits, planned to ask the county commissioners to hold off on new approvals for gravel pits until more is known.
"We have an adequate supply right now there's no rush," City Council President Kevin Bennett said Tuesday.
Bennett's position is backed up by a table compiled by county planner John Eastman. It shows that eight existing gravel pits in the county have enough reserves to last another five to seven years at current sales rates of 940,000 tons annually.
Councilman Ken Brenner said this week he supports taking an overall look at gravel pits in the region during the upcoming rewrite of the Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan. It is a joint planning effort between city and county that establishes guiding principles for the future of Steamboat and portions of the county immediately surrounding the city. Tentatively due to begin in the first half of 2001, the revision of the community plan presents an ideal opportunity to plan for future gravel needs, Brenner said.
Beall said he is specifically concerned about the impacts all of the gravel pits and the unnatural lakes they leave behind, have on the ecosystem of the Yampa River. He advocated a hydrological study to consider those impacts.
"I'm opposed to lakes all along the river," Beall said. "They're like craters."
Still, Beall said he recognizes the need to meet future demand for gravel needed for new buildings and roads.
"We have to find out what's the best way to develop a resource that is a community need," Beall said.
Tony Connell of Connell Resources is in the unique position of being a gravel pit and asphalt batch plant operator in Routt County who also serves on the city Planning Commission. Connell's firm operates the Thompson pit east of Milner, the Tellier pit, also near Milner, and the Connell/Camilletti pit south of Hayden.
Connell said he believes gravel pits can be done correctly to minimize their impacts.
"I just want the playing field level for everybody," Connell said. He explained that he has been required to take expensive steps to improve county roads and railroad crossings, install landscaping and other measures at his gravel pits. If other operators aren't held to the same high standards, it will give them a competitive advantage that could put pressure on some gravel pit operators to cut corners, Connell said.
At the Thompson pit, which is close to U.S. 40 about eight miles west of Steamboat, Connell said his annual cost to operate a water truck to keep dust down is $50,000 including labor. During this unusually dry summer, the water truck runs 11 to 12 hours a day.
Connell admits that when he first began operating an asphalt batch plant at his Thompson pit, he received complaints about pollution. Consequently, he said he invested $1.5 million in a "counterflow asphalt drum" that was state of the art for pollution control at the time. Now, he said, some people are unaware that the batch plant, visible on a bench above the gravel pit, is even there.
"I'm glad that's worked out for us," Connell said. "It's a good thing."
Word of the latest gravel pit proposal came this week when Elam Construction of Grand Junction announced it was partnering with Native Excavating of Steamboat Springs on a plan that won't be formally presented to Routt County until sometime this fall. The Yampa Meadows gravel pit would be built on 90 acres along the river just south of the city limits. It would almost certainly include an asphalt batch plant and perhaps a concrete plant, Tom Logue said. He is Elam's manager of government affairs.
Logue said he recently guided the only gravel pit in Pitkin County to a successful 10-year extension of its operating permit. The gravel pit is outside Woody Creek, just down the Roaring Fork Valley from Aspen.
Logue said when cities approve master plans (west of Steamboat, which would allow development of 2,000 dwelling units on 600 acre is one example) it creates a natural demand for gravel.
"It is imperative to take into account the fact that the aggregate industry is simply responding to a demand that is created by the very master plan which is created," Logue said.
Logue has worked extensively in Pitkin and Mesa counties.
In Pitkin County, near Aspen, he said government land-use plans call for substantial improvements to Colorado 82 between Aspen and Basalt. The highway construction alone will require at least 40,000 truckloads of material. But local government also wants construction of bike and pedestrian pathways, as well as mass transit facilities, all of which will consume more gravel. There also are plans for a light rail system that will generate even more demand for gravel, Logue said.
Most people don't realize that even with zero growth, a community has an ongoing demand for gravel, Logue said. The national industry standard says it takes 10 tons of gravel per person per year to maintain existing roads, utilities and public buildings. Logue suspects the number is probably a little higher in snow country.
Turning to the Aspen area again, Logue said population forecasts for Pitkin County (as of 1997) predicted 17,682 residents by 2005. The 1995 population was 14,284. Population projections would increase the annual demand for gravel, just to maintain what exists, from 145,000 tons to almost 180,000 tons. The Aspen Area Plan limits the area's growth rate to 2 percent a year. The 2005 population estimates would add 1,215 new dwelling units to the county. Homes in Pitkin County may vary from national averages, which estimate the typical home requires 125 tons of aggregate to construct.
The cost of gravel materials varies with the materials, from road base to cobble and sand. It also varies with the pit. Fees charged may include an hourly charge for the equipment needed to haul the material. But a charge of $10 per ton for washed rock, not including the equipment, is typical.
Logue said hauling distances will remain a critical part of the future of the gravel industry in Routt County. His company figures transportation costs at 17 cents per mile. With 20 tons in a large truck, it's easy to see transportation costs alone exceed $10 per mile.
"When you start adding 20 to 30 miles, the resource starts getting pretty pricey," Logue said.
Connell said he can't provide a value for the worth of 1 million tons of unmined gravel in a pit. True, he said, his company's business plans project how much material is in a given pit, but the values vary from the Tellier pit where the amount of "binder" in the soil make the aggregate suitable for pit run and road base, to the Thompson pit, where the gravel is suitable for asphalt.
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