Lafarge conflict will re-emerge

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The Army Corps of Engineers has a preliminary opinion of how Lafarge's proposed gravel pit in the south valley affects wetlands.

The opinion -- which is not yet public -- has been forwarded to other area offices, and a final decision on issuing Lafarge the needed wetlands permit will come from the Sacramento District of the Army Corps, said Tony Curtis, chief of the Frisco Regulatory Office.

Once that permit is in hand, Lafarge officials said they would bring plans for the gravel pit back to the county, with hopes of getting the project approved this summer.

The controversial gravel pit has drawn support and criticism, with residents forming the vocal Concerned Citizens group to lobby against the pit for aesthetic, wildlife and safety reasons.

Although both sides have been quieter for the past year, since county commissioners tabled their decision in April 2003 pending further information, the Army Corps' permit decision likely will respark heated discussions.

"We're going to get vocal as soon as we hear the decision," said Sam Marti, an administrative assistant with the Concerned Citizens.

The group has published a monthly newsletter for the past year and has held extensive advertising, letter-writing and telephone campaigns. If the Army Corps issues a permit, those efforts will continue, Marti said.

"We're going to do whatever it takes to stop this and have them go somewhere else," Marti said.

Plans for what Lafarge calls the River Valley Resource site include operating five gravel pits, a permanent concrete plant, a seasonal crushing and screening plant, and a washing plant. The pit has an estimated operating life of 13 to 15 years. The site is on a 128-acre parcel of the More Family Ranch, which is on the east side of Colorado Highway 131.

Lafarge originally asked for an asphalt plant as well, but has since taken that request off the table.

Marti said she is most worried about the safety of people driving on Colo. 131. When a fog drops in, or conditions are poor, it might be hard for someone going 65 mph to see a slow truck that just pulled out of the site.

She also worries about whether Lafarge will clean up the site when it's finished, and how the operation could change the look of the south valley.

"I love this valley, that's why I moved here 32 years ago, and I don't want to see a big mess in the middle of it for the rest of my life," Marti said. "It's going to ruin the natural beauty that we have, that's our emerald jewel."

Ken Solomon, a general contractor who also is a member of Concerned Citizens, said residents keep hearing about the importance of preserving natural beauty to the area's economy.

"Every person who's ever driven into this valley, the first thing they see is the potential gravel pit site," Solomon said. "And if that's your first impression, it's not going to be that special place that we're trying to sell."

Those concerns and others were expressed during public meetings last year. Gary Tuttle, Lafarge regional land manager, said many of the concerns do not hold up.

Residents should not be worried about visual impacts, he said, because the company has worked extensively to improve aesthetics by setting back equipment and landscaping with earth and berms. From Rabbit Ears Pass, the site would be visible for about 22 seconds, he said.

Concerns about traffic also should not be an issue, he said, as gravel pits have been active in the area for the past 12 years, and the roads have been safe. The gravel pit would have a safe intersection, as mandated by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Having the pit in the area is important because gravel is found near the river, Tuttle said, and because the site is south of town, people who want gravel and concrete for building won't have to transport everything through downtown Steamboat Springs.

The company has no active gravel operations in the area, and so will have no gravel sales this summer because its two gravel pits south of Steamboat have closed. Lafarge is making concrete at a site west of Steamboat.

The company's North Pit, a few miles down river from the proposed new pit, is 70 percent reclaimed, while the company's South Pit, about a half-mile from the proposed new site, is about half reclaimed, Tuttle said. Through reclamation, ponds and slopes are made to look natural, wetlands are constructed, and topsoil, seed grass and trees and shrubs are put in place, he said.

By the end of the year, the North Pit will "look very natural," Tuttle said. The city of Steamboat Springs plans to purchase the site to provide about 100 acres of open space.

Plans for the new pit first came before local government in spring 2003. The Steamboat Springs City Council recommended that the board not approve the pit to preserve views from Rabbit Ears Pass; soon after that, the Routt County Planning Commission recommended approving the plan on a 5-3 vote.

In April 2003, Routt County commissioners took many public comments at lengthy meetings and decided to table their decision until Lafarge could provide information on issues including such as how wetlands would be affected and how realignment of a ditch would affect other neighbors.

"(Without that information) we never got as far as really discussing the appropriateness of mining gravel on (the South Valley) site," Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

If Lafarge returns to the county this summer with a wetlands permit and a solution on the ditch issue, which is being worked out through the courts, as well as a study on whether the gravel mined in the area would be useful, whether pollution can be controlled and several other issues, then another public meeting before county commissioners would be scheduled, Stahoviak said.

At that meeting, there's a chance public comments could be limited to new information, Stahoviak said.

The county has not received calls on the issue for a while, but Stahoviak said she was sure that interest on both sides was alive.

In general, she said, gravel pit issues seem to spark the most controversy in the county.

But the bottom line, she said, is that Routt County zoning and subdivision regulations allow gravel mining operations in the agriculture and forestry zone, as long as the operations mitigate concerns about visual impacts, safety and environmental impacts.

"We'll just have to wait and see what comes back," Stahoviak said.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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