Stones cast in gravel war

Meeting should end contentious debate

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From the deck of her home, Rosemary Post will have a bird's eye view of Lafarge's proposed gravel pit in the South Valley.

Although she now has unobstructed views of green pastures dotted with homes and the meandering Yampa River, the 73-year-old Post fears a gravel pit will forever tarnish the South Valley's beauty.

"It will be there long after I'm dead," Post said.

For four years, Post and other members of the grass-roots group Concerned Citizens have fought the gravel pit proposal, worried about the visual effects it would have on one of Routt County's most famous vistas and its potentially negative effects on wetlands, air quality and traffic safety.

On Monday night, that battle should come to an end. Routt County commissioners will hear Lafarge's proposal at 6:30 p.m. Monday in Centennial Hall, and the decision they are expected to make then should seal the pit's fate.

No common ground

An ongoing battle since 2001, the Lafarge gravel pit proposal for the South Valley has ignited a debate throughout the community.

On one side are those fighting to keep the pastoral South Valley unmarred by an industrial gravel mining operation.

"My parents came to Steamboat in 1940, largely due to the beauty that beheld them when they came over Rabbit Ears Pass and saw the beautiful Yampa floor," Robin Lorenz Romick said. "Even considering having a gravel pit in the pristine area is (like) slaying the goose that laid the golden egg."

Romick was one of nearly 50 people who gathered Friday afternoon in front of the Routt County Courthouse to protest the gravel pit.

On the other side are those who think a source of gravel should be available close to where the material is needed. Having a gravel pit on the south side of Steamboat means large trucks would not have to travel through town to transport gravel from west of Steamboat to the base of the ski area or farther.

"There are big plans for the base area. It makes sense for us to supply gravel and concrete for that site and not impact the city while doing it," said Bruce Daniel, Lafarge's Routt County area manager. "There is going to be growth -- we have to be smart about it. Our resources need to be as close to the demand as possible."

Gravel from Lafarge's previous mines in the South Valley helped build the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel, Yampa Valley Medical Center, City Market and a school in Oak Creek, not to mention countless residences.

"We helped build the homes for the people who later don't want to see our continuance," Lafarge's Regional Land Manager Gary Tuttle said.

A 'high-level' plan

In 2001, Lafarge started working with the community to find a place where it could replace the soon-to-be-depleted South and North pits just outside the city limits.

In April 2003, Lafarge proposed a gravel pit called the River Valley Resource site on the 128-acre More Family Ranch, east of Colorado Highway 131. The site would have five smaller gravel pits, a permanent concrete plant, seasonal crushing and screening plant and a washing plant, with an estimated life of 13 to 15 years.

Tuttle said the five gravel pits would allow the company to mine in small sections and when mining is finished in one area, start the individual reclamation process.

Lafarge originally asked for an asphalt plant but later dropped that request.

In the spring of 2003, the gravel pit plan started making its way through the approval process. The Steamboat Springs City Council recommended the board not approve the pit to preserve views from Rabbit Ears Pass. Soon after that, the Routt County Planning Commission voted 5-3 to recommend approving the plan.

In April, the Routt County Board of Commissioners held a lengthy meeting with much public comment. The commissioners decided to table their decision until Lafarge obtained permits from other agencies, settled a dispute about an irrigation ditch and brought forward other information.

Since then, Lafarge has received a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers for wetland filing and mitigation. It also received state permits for water discharge, air pollution control, water quality, intersection and access onto the highway, mining and reclamation, and a well.

The only approvals left are for a Routt County special-use permit and a county floodplain development permit.

Lafarge officials said the company's commitment to the community and environment is exhibited through its deep setbacks for structures, generous native landscaping, road improvements for traffic safety, minimal community disturbance, a reclamation plan that enhances wildlife and a wetland replacement ratio of 2.5 acres replaced to every one acre disturbed.

"We have done more work on this permit than any other applicant in the county," Tuttle said. "We have gone beyond the regulations in terms of setbacks and landscaping and in terms of noise reduction and our reclamation plan."

Routt County Planner John Eastman agrees that Lafarge has put in more work than any other applicant.

"As far as gravel pits go, this is the highest level and most detailed plan of any gravel pit we have ever looked at," he said. "Whether all these things can be implemented, that is the critical issue."

Flood worries

Despite Lafarge's new information and obtaining of necessary permits, Concerned Citizens still worry about more than the pit's harm to the visual corridor.

At the top of the list is the gravel pits' affect on wetlands. Post, who watches the annual flooding of the Yampa River from her home, said Lafarge would need to run pumps continuously to keep water out of their pits. She fears she will forever have to hear the pump machinery and feel their vibrations.

She also worries that a major flood could wash the entire operation downstream. Not that she would mind the gravel operation disappearing, but she questions the environmental damage it would do.

"A hundred-year flood would be disastrous," she said.

Eastman said gravel pit's conflict with floodplains is a natural occurrence. The runoff from rivers is what partially produces the stone that makes good gravel. But gravel pits usually are not in the floodway, which is where floods have a current and can move material downstream, he said.

"We don't have any other gravel pits currently operating in Routt County that are in the floodway. Lots in the floodplain, that's typical," he said.

Eastman sad the Lafarge plan includes mitigation measures, such creating berms and raising the elevations of some areas of the site to prevent material from getting caught in a flood. The concrete plant would be built go outside the floodway.

Lafarge has stated that the Army Corps review indicated the gravel pit would not effect wildlife and groundwater in the area. It also would not change the downstream flow of the ground water or downstream wetlands.

Other concerns

Concerned Citizen Sam Marti is apprehensive that air pollution could be a problem. She said in that end of the valley, the air gets trapped and will hold the dust from the gravel operations.

The group also fears the increased water from the reclamation process will make the ground colder and cause the fog to worsen in the area.

Post worries about the traffic hazards along Colo.131. She said the proposed entrance into the pit, which is just north of the turnoff of to Catamount and a bridge crossing the Yampa River, is a notoriously icy spot. And, the fog that builds up in the area would make driving conditions even worse, she said.

Lafarge has proposed building acceleration and deceleration lanes at the operation's entrance and has obtained a Colorado Department of Transportation permit to do so. Company officials also note that, because Lafarge has managed operations along Colo.131 for 14 years and the gravel pit would replace these operations, there will be no increase in traffic.

Finally, Lafarge also has proposed installing equipment to monitor fog conditions and if heavy fog is indicated, hauling from the site will be suspended and returning concrete-mixer trucks will be radioed to remain at pour sites until the fog is lifted.

One of Post's greatest concerns is what will happen when the mining stops and the reclamation process begins. A short walk form her house, Post can look out onto the old North and South pits. She chuckles at the finished project, pointing to a line of poplar trees that, she said, was the extent of the landscaping work.

Lafarge's past reclamations have her worried for the proposed site in front of her house.

"Once they are there, they change nature forever, for eternity," Post said. "I don't blame Lafarge for going in there and making a buck. I do blame commissioners for not sticking to the law of the county."

When reclamation is complete, the site will have five lakes totaling 65.5 acres, add an additional 23 acres of wetland and have extensive revegetation to convert the site from irrigated alfalfa fields to native wildlife habitat, according to Lafarge's proposal.

Lafarge also notes the success of its South Pit. It recently received accolades from the city, which purchased part of it as a park, and Great Outdoors Colorado, which gave grant money to help facilitate that purchase. The site has 17-acres of wetlands and a 40-acre lake that will one day be used for fishing.

"It will set the standard for our type of business in the county," Tuttle said of the plan.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229 or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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