By Katharhynn Heidelberg Daily Press Senior Writer
Health, environmental, safety and property value concerns should halt a proposed gravel pit on the mesa near T Road in its tracks, opponents told the Montrose County Planning Commission Thursday.
“You can glue as many goose feathers on a pig as you want, but you can’t make a pig fly,” opponent Albert Stowell said. “This isn’t a special use. This is heavy industry.”
But others at the packed public hearing said Rocky Mountain Aggregate and Construction has the right to use private property as it sees fit and that gravel, a needed resource, doesn’t magically materialize.
“To me, it’s the best thing that can happen on that mesa, is to have a gravel pit there. We need this in this area,” said Dean Alexander, who owns a trucking company on T Road.
Rocky Mountain Aggregate is seeking a special use permit to mine gravel and estimates that the mine’s life could be 105 years, pending demand. The proposal also is for a concrete batch plant and a limited asphalt plant. Company representatives said the site is perfect and easier to mitigate than other gravel mines. No more than 21 acres of the proposed 191-acre site would be mined at one time, and reclamation would be constant. They said that further, they have agreed to many terms and conditions out of consideration to nearby property owners.
“It’s not this pit versus zero,” said representative Greg Lewicki, who is assisting Rocky Mountain Aggregate’s owner Zane Luttrell. “Gravel has got to come from somewhere else. You could permit smaller pits in the river valley … or do something like this that assures long-term supply.” Lewicki also argued against postponing the permit decision. Planning director Steve White recommended waiting until October, after a pending federal decision on listing the Gunnison sage-grouse as an endangered species should have been made. The proposed pit lies in an area that would fall under critical habitat designation for the bird, White said. (See Wednesday’s Daily Press.) “We firmly believe it’s not habitat,” Lewicki said, providing findings from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and a biologist backing the claim. No one has seen a sage-grouse on the site for decades, and the mesa is too dry and barren to suit the birds, he said. “What makes good habitat is good, healthy sage and also water. There is no water on the property.” There is significant human activity within a two-mile radius, he added. While the bird might one day be listed, it isn’t now, he said. “There’s no need for a continuance on this subject.”
Lewicki said mining operations would not be visible from U.S. 550. Rocky Mountain Aggregate plans to mine from the bottom up, leaving all sides of the mesa intact, and a berm will conceal it from view. Other berms are to be built between the haul road and affected residences on T Road.
Don Corder said he could see the site from his patio, but he is more concerned with traffic. Lewicki said estimates are 1.8 trucks per hour during a 10-hour workday — a figure opponents strongly disputed as too low. The company would be required to obtain highway access from the state Department of Transportation and bear the costs of necessary improvements. On Tuesday, a Montrose man died after striking a dump truck that was waiting to turn left off the highway, Corder noted.
“How many more people are going to be killed before we do something about Highway 550?” he asked, saying the decision should be postponed until there are more turning lanes or a lower speed limit.
Sharon Rasmussen noted that CDOT is already seeking private organizations to take on highway maintenance, as it doesn’t have the budget. “Which private group in Montrose County will be willing to take up maintenance of 550?” she asked.
Residents and planning commissioners also raised concerns over water and dust. Water would be trucked up the mesa at a rate of about 20 trips a day, Lewicki told Planning Commissioner Gary Gerren. The company would buy water from Tri-County Water if irrigation water ran out, Luttrell told neighbor David Seymour. The irrigation water would be used for dust control; other water would come from a Tri-County water line.
Roger Noble, who owns a large swath of frontage property near T Road, said if Luttrell hasn’t applied for a change in irrigation water use, it would be illegal for him to use the water for mining. Other residents raised concerns about chemicals used in the batching process, and just how closely state and local agencies would inspect the pit operations, especially dust mitigation requirements.
While Stowell said private property rights don’t extend beyond property boundaries, and Janice Wheeler reiterated that hundreds stood to lose from one property owner’s gain, other neighbors spoke up for Luttrell. “I know Zane and them guys will do a good job there,” said Jim Finnegan, who lives 3.5 miles from the proposed pit. “I think private property rights are a big thing. I give them a thumbs-up. Gravel is what’s made this valley.” “I did not move here for the gravel or asphalt,” resident Tim Lund later countered. Although Luttrell’s plan sounds good on paper, “words are cheap,” he said.