Gravel pit sparks controversy

Some residents outraged at plan to add another operation

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— Diane Holly has been fighting the noise and fumes for 10 years.

The sound of diesel engines and smell of asphalt linger in the air around her home on U.S. Highway 40 many mornings.

She's concerned the emissions are aggravating her and her children's asthma and has repeatedly shared those concerns with county officials. She wonders if her protests are making a difference.

Holly, a fourth-generation rancher who lives just outside Milner, wants to hold on to her family's ranch for her children. The persistent noise and the fumes, however, weaken her resolve.

"I can see why people sell out and move on," she said. "It would be so easy."

But she holds out hope her circumstances will improve, that the sounds and odors will eventually go away.

"The rancher is the eternal optimist," she said.

Yet she understands the roar of engines and asphalt fumes serve a fundamental need in Routt County. People have a right to use their land as they see fit, but not at the expense of their neighbors, she said.

Holly lives next to a gravel pit.

Pits exist across county

About 20 gravel pits exist in Routt County, from the Wyoming border to west of Toponas. Some are smaller than 10 acres while others are as large as 50 acres.

The location of gravel pits historically draws fire from people throughout the county, especially residents like Holly whose homes lie near pit operations.

Now, a new plan to add one more pit to the list of mining operations in the county has evoked outrage from people who don't want to see the land disturbed and support from those who feel growth demands another source of gravel.

Lafarge West, Inc., is proposing to replace its spent North and South pits with a 91-acre pit six miles south of Steamboat Springs on Colorado Highway 131.

The site would sit within 128 acres on the More Family Ranch and include five gravel pits and a permanent concrete plant. It would also have a seasonal crushing and screening plant, washing plant and asphalt batch plant that would operate on the site during construction months.

A gravel pit is necessary in the south valley to supply construction demands in the southern half of the county, said Gary Tuttle, Lafarge's director of land and resources.

"There is a need for these products," he said.

Lafarge wants to operate near its customers, he said. If the county denies its request to mine in the south valley, no mining operation will exist in the south valley.

That's exactly what some residents are hoping for.

"Concerned Property Owners in South Valley," a grassroots effort to oppose the pit, spoke out against the proposed mining operation when Lafarge shared its conceptual plan with the county in November 2001.

Now that Lafarge has finalized its plan, the group is more determined to tell the county why a gravel pit does not belong in their backyards.

Lafarge's revised plan

County officials raised several concerns when Lafarge presented an early version of its proposal 17 months ago.

Tuttle said the company took the county's and residents' suggestions and incorporated them into its final plan.

Major changes include moving the pit's main operations from the west end to the southeast end, or far corner, of the site, and preserving a strip of wetlands that runs across the property.

A commitment to preserve some of the wetlands forces Lafarge to mine five smaller pits rather than one large pit, County Planner John Eastman said. Workers will mine around wetlands rather than excavating them. Lafarge plans to use existing wetlands as the shorelines for several lakes and ponds planned during reclamation.

Tuttle said the company tried to alleviate the visual impacts of the operation by placing a portion of their operation below ground level.

Elizabeth Matlack of Concerned Property Owners in South Valley does not have much confidence in Lafarge's proposal.

The company has a poor track record for following the rules, she said, which casts a shadow on its ability to make good on promises this time around.

"We just want them to follow the rules," she said.

Concerned Property Owners of South Valley argue the More property is agricultural land that has been designated as open space.

"There are better places to go," she said.

The More property is the best possible site for Lafarge's gravel operation, Tuttle said. The south valley is riddled with 35-acre parcels. Larger parcels are scarce.

Lafarge wanted enough land to enclose its mining operations and avoid sharing property lines with neighbors on all sides.

"It was the best option," he said.

Pit location a challenge

Finding a site to mine gravel isn't as easy as finding a site to build a house, said Paul Draper, director of the County Road and Bridge Department, which owns five pits around the county.

Companies go where the gravel is, and sometimes that forces them to go where the people are.

"Gravel is where it is," Draper said. "We don't have as much flexibility."

The county's road system maintains a healthy appetite for gravel. Resurfacing and maintenance projects swallow up a large portion of the county's annual $400,000 gravel budget.

The county mines from five of its own pits in North Routt and around Stagecoach and Hayden, but it buys gravel when an improvement project is closer to a commercial pit than one of its own pits.

The cost of hauling is more expensive than the cost of gravel, Draper said, so it makes sense to buy from private pits when county pits are too far away.

Draper doesn't see the need for gravel dissipating, but he expects its cost will increase as the availability of gravel sites wane. The county would like to acquire another pit in the future if an opportunity arises, he said.

Good gravel neighbors?

Conflict will likely not dissipate either, although some gravel pit operators and neighbors have managed to avoid sour relationships.

Ed and Kathy Hockin operate a small gravel pit just outside Hayden. They don't try to compete with larger companies and only service the local area.

"People should have a right to make a living on their land," Kathy Hockin said.

But that right ends when they begin to tread on the rights of others to peacefully live their lives, she said.

The Hockins have mined gravel for about 25 years. Their current pit was approved two years ago. The couple has tried to be good neighbors and take care of problems sooner rather than later.

Gravel is essential, but no one wants to live next to a gravel pit, Hockin said.

"It's something you have to have," she said. "I wish people would try to work together."

Tuttle said Lafarge has made an effort to build relationships with its neighbors and address concerns immediately.

Alleviating any foreseeable impacts on the people who live around the proposed site is the company's priority, he said.

Lafarge will make its case before the County Planning Commission at 6 p.m. Thursday in Centennial Hall. Its recommendations will go to the Board of County Commissioners for a final decision Tuesday, April 22.

Residents are prepared to fight the proposal.

"We would like to feel like we could make an impact," Matlack said. "We're willing to do this all over again."

-- To reach Danie Harrelson call 871-4203

or e-mail dharrelson@steamboatpilot.com

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