Pit proposal gets first OK

Gravel production increase may depend on nearby trees

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— The operators of the Camilletti Milner gravel pit are one step closer to boosting production at their pit 11 miles west of Steamboat Springs.

But they may be required to prove they can take better care of sensitive cottonwood stands before they are allowed to expand the gravel-mining area.

Pit operators Precision Excavating received a unanimous recommendation for approval of their plans from the Routt County Planning Commission last week. The proposal goes to the Routt County Board of Commissioners on March 14.

However, the Planning Com--mission wants to see documentation about the effectiveness of a plan to maintain a good water supply for the cottonwood trees near the gravel pit. The trees and willow shrubs screen views of the mining operation from two county roads in the vicinity.

Trees along one boundary of the pit are dying. County Planner John Eastman said several years of drought may be a contributing factor. The dying trees aren't as critical to screening the pit as are cottonwoods elsewhere on the site, Eastman added.

David Zehner of Precision Excavating did not go to the Planning Commission to ask for approval to expand the size of the gravel pit. Rather, he asked permission to take more gravel annually from the existing pit.

He succeeded in persuading the commissioners that his company had demonstrated it could responsibly mine and transport more gravel than the original 180,000 tons allowed during any 12-month period. Zehner asked that, like other gravel pits in the county, he be free of caps stipulating how much gravel he could mine. He asked that the cap be increased to 550,000 tons in 12 months.

The planning commissioners recommended that Zehner's request for 550,000 tons be granted. However, they noted that mining operations apparently have contributed to the demise of some cottonwoods. They want to ensure the trouble doesn't spread.

Zehner has proposed a new strategy for protecting the trees by preventing groundwater from infiltrating the pit. It's thought that groundwater infiltrating the pit robs the cottonwoods of their water supply.

Eastman said he has seen a similar technique work at gravel pits elsewhere. The planning commissioners want to see evidence that the strategy works before Zehner is allowed to go ahead with previously approved pit expansions.

"I think that was a good way to handle it," Eastman said.

A half-dozen neighbors of the gravel pit submitted written comments before the Planning Commission meeting, Eastman said. In response to their concerns, the commissioners also recommended that heavy loaders in the pit be equipped with the latest backup alarms, which have "proximity sensitive devices." The benefit is that they don't sound their high-pitched alarms except when necessary, Eastman said.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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