Board to weigh legal issues

Discussion seems bottomless on gravel pit

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County Commissioner Doug Monger kept one eye on an hourglass and the other on the speaker before him Tuesday night.

Three minutes go fast.

But a time limit was the only way to accommodate the large number of people who wanted to testify on Lafarge's proposed gravel pit in the south valley.

"If we don't reject this plan, what kind of message are we sending to this community?" David Josfan asked the Routt County Board of County Commissioners.

Area plans indicate the south valley is valued for its open space and agricultural heritage and warrants protection from industrial uses, he said.

Josfan was concerned that approving a gravel pit in the south valley would undermine public trust in plans the public drew up and signed on to.

"There are no questions," he said. "There is no maybe. There is no accommodating. It's a key open space."

Many of the people who squeezed into Centennial Hall to hear what the board would say about Lafarge's plans for a mining operation six miles south of Steamboat Springs off Colorado Highway 131 shared Josfan's concerns.

"If you approve this project, I think it's going to be one of the more decisive things that has happened to this county in a long, long time," Julie Green said.

She argued that property values would take a dive if a gravel pit moved into the neighborhood.

Attorney Richard Tremaine spoke on behalf of a couple who owns property adjacent the proposed 128-acre site on the More Family Ranch.

He feared a mining operation in his clients' back yard would hinder their efforts to sell the land.

Tremaine also conveyed his clients' doubts about the board having an open mind about Lafarge's proposal.

Lafarge is asking for permission to operate five gravel pits in five phases, as well as a permanent concrete plant, seasonal crushing and screening plant, washing plant and asphalt batch plant that would run on the site during the construction season.

County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak later responded that she and her colleagues had not reached a decision before the hearing.

Lafarge spokesman Gary Tuttle assured the board that the company had taken "extraordinary measures" to alleviate environmental, noise and traffic impacts.

He reminded commissioners of a November 2001 hearing in which Lafarge appeared before the board with conceptual plans for a gravel pit six miles south of Steamboat.

"You said you would accept this ... if we address a big list of items," Tuttle said.

The board didn't accept or deny Lafarge's proposal Tuesday night. The commissioners tabled their decision until July 22. The need for a three-month window became apparent as questions surfaced about the suggested environmental and legal consequences of a gravel pit on the proposed site.

Routt County must draw on outside legal and scientific opinion to answer those questions fairly.

Hiring qualified people, bringing them up to the speed on the situation and getting their feedback requires more than a few weeks, County Planning Director Caryn Fox said.

Boulder attorney Steve Bushong argued that Lafarge has no legal right to divert an irrigation ditch that runs through the proposed site.

Bushong, who represents about one-third of the people with water rights to the Suttle ditch, warned that Lafarge could face legal action if it touched the ditch without first getting permission from water-right holders.

The county hopes a third-party water law attorney can sort out what, if any, course of action Lafarge must take.

Lafarge maintains it has the legal authority to reroute the ditch as it mines the proposed site.

The county expects to hire another water expert to sort through conflicting statements on the impact of Lafarge's proposed reclamation plan.

Fruita ecologist Michael Claf-fey forecast the destruction of valuable wetlands within the 128-acre parcel.

The company plans to mine around a strip of wetlands that runs through the property and use existing wetlands as the shorelines for several lakes and ponds during the reclamation process.

Claffey, who spoke on behalf of Concerned Citizens, the grass-roots organization opposing the mining operation, said the planned lakes and ponds would need more water to reach capacity once the gravel was removed.

The extra water to fill the pit holes would come from wetlands and dry out the wetlands, he said.

"There has to be other alternatives," Claffey said.

Lafarge's reclamation plan fostered additional doubts.

County Commissioner Doug Monger asked what would happen to the land once it was reclaimed.

The Routt County Planning Commission recommended protecting the parcel from development after reclamation.

Tuttle admitted that Lafarge has no control over what will happen to the restored property.

"We do not have any rights to make commitments to building houses or not building houses," he said.

Lafarge agreed to turn over the property to the More family and Jarle Halsnes, who proposed an earlier plan to mine the parcel, after the land was reclaimed.

"We can't encumber the property because they have the right to buy it back," Tuttle said.

Monger was concerned by the thought of extracting minerals from the land and then building houses on it.

"We end up having double dipping," he said.

John Holloway, who spoke on behalf of Concerned Citizens, asked the board to weigh their decision in light of Tuesday's Earth Day celebrations.

He suggested an alternative "out of the box" site at the southern gateway to Steamboat that would utilize already mined piles of gravel.

"This Earth Day, I think we have a chance to make this right," he said.

Supporters of a mining operation argued that approving Lafarge's request was the right thing to do.

Patsy Wilhelm brought a rancher's perspective to the discussion. She reminded the board that the sale of a piece of the More property to Lafarge allows that family to maintain a much larger piece of agricultural land in the south valley.

"It gets harder and harder to make a living without doing something extra," Wilhelm said. "Ranchers just can't do it as ranchers."

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