Gravel pit group digs into noise, buffer issues

Three meetings in, the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s working group on gravel pit issues is already finding the sore spots between neighbors and operators.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Material Site Working Group — which will address all surface material mining sites in the borough, including peat and sand mining, but is primarily focused on gravel pits — is chipping away at the issues related to the sites as it attempts to update the borough code. The borough Planning Department has proposed a set of changes, the members of the group are listening to guest speakers and considering the suggestions before taking public comment and making final recommendations to the Planning Commission and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in May.

As well as hearing from Mine Safety and Health Administration representative Bob Wood on the federal regulations for mines, the group tackled a variety of topics related to gravel pit operations that have caused conflict between residents and operators in the past. Chief among those was noise and the visual impact of a gravel pit in a neighborhood, as well as dust kicked up in operations.

“It’s a challenge — they bleed into each other pretty rapidly,” he said. “…These are the topics that we repeatedly here almost any time a gravel pit pops up at the Planning Commission.”

Right now, operators who apply for a conditional use permit have to comply with the regulations to put in a buffer around the property. The Planning Commission can set a maximum of 50 feet of required vegetation around a new gravel pit, as well as work with the operator to require a fence or a higher berm than the standard if the conditions warrant it. The changes proposed by the Planning Commission would change the language to make the 50 foot buffer a minimum rather than a maximum.

The vegetation is meant to serve as a screen for the visual of a pit as well as mitigate some of the noise, said Planning Director Max Best. Right now, the 50 feet may not be enough to adequately do that, Ruffner said.

“The other common thing that I heard is that in requiring a 50 foot buffer for the purposes of sight mitigation, noise mitigation … that 50 feet, you could throw a dog through it because it’s all scraggly black spruce,” Ruffner said.

Working group member Tom Clark said one immediate concern is that there be limits on how much of a buffer the Planning Commission could require. Every horizontal foot means money lost for the operator.

“Certainly, economically, it’s a huge hit,” he said. “…If you want to expand it, there better be a finite number limit, because the idea that you get 40 homeowners in here, they’re angry, the Planning Commission listens to them and puts a 500 foot buffer on there, and you suddenly don’t have property to mine.”

The Planning Department’s recommendations also include a 500-foot buffer zone around existing Local Option Zones, areas where the property owners have requested to be zoned in a particular category and received assembly approval. Gravel pit operators pay property taxes, and the larger the buffer is, the more land they have to pay property tax on without being able to utilize.

Hours of operation and noise are other major points of contention between gravel pit operators and neighbors. Rock crushers, backup alarms and truck traffic all cause noise issues, which property owners have said reduces their property value and quality of life. The backup alarms on trucks — the recognizable beeping heard on most large commercial vehicles — can be very loud and carry into residential areas. One of the Planning Department’s recommendations is to limit the hours of any operation in gravel pits to between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., with rock crushing stopping at 7 p.m., with discretion for the Planning Commission to expand those and add mitigation measures.

One alternative to the standard beeping backup alarm is a “white noise” alarm, which produces a type of static. The Planning Department’s recommendations do not require them, but the group discussed the alternative. Clark said they are not as comprehensively easy to hear and thus don’t provide the same level of safety as the standard loud backup alarms.

Working group member Brent Johnson also noted that overnight may sometimes be the best time for gravel pit operators to work because of the reduced traffic. Some operators have to work around the clock to finish projects during the summer window as well, he said.

“There’s so much traffic, they have to wait to pull out, sitting there in their trucks, waiting,” he said. “I applaud any of those companies that haul at night, don’t interfere with traffic and don’t be a part of that.”

The group’s recommendations could ultimately result in sweeping regulation changes for gravel pit operators, depending on whether existing operations are grandfathered in or not, and where they can open in the future. Scott Davis of Davis Block, which operates a pit on Ravenswood Street off Ciechanski Road, said he thought the borough’s current rules are fair for operators but hadn’t had a chance to review the Planning Commission’s recommendations yet.

Davis Block used to operate a site in Soldotna but purchased an existing pit off Ravenswood a few years ago, cleaned it up and built its headquarters on it. The company tries to be responsible and work well with the borough and neighbors, Davis said.

“A gravel pit is just one of those necessary things. We employed up to 75 people this summer, and almost all of our projects were either produced here and shipped of the peninsula,” he said. “…To date, the borough has been really good. I am concerned about any new regulations because we all kind of know what the rules are now and if we start putting in a bunch of new rules, it would increase the cost.”

The group is not taking public comments at its meetings right now but plans to host public listening sessions the first week of April. One is scheduled at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chambers in Soldotna for Thursday, April 5, at 6 p.m. and another is scheduled tentatively for the afternoon of Saturday, April 7 in Anchor Point, depending on space availability.

The group is accepting written public comments until then on the borough’s website.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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