Gravel pit group looks at reclamation, bonding

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s working group on material sites is getting at the heart of the reason it was formed — to help resolve some of the conflicts between operators and neighbors.

Nearly every time a gravel pit operator comes before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission for a conditional use permit approval, nearby residents show up en masse to protest. Chief among their complaints is concern that the presence of a gravel pit will reduce their property values.

“Most of the time, when we walk into the room, when we get our packet and there are gravel pits on the agenda, we know it’s going to be a long night,” said Robert Ruffner, the chairman of the material site working group and a member of the Planning Commission. “There’s typically 30 or 40 people for seven out of the 10 gravel pits that we hear.”

The Planning Commission generally has to grant the conditional use permit as long as the operator has met all the borough’s requirements, whether or not residents object. Outside city limits, the borough has no formal zoning, and so residential areas have few protections against industrial activity. The borough does have an opt-in program, called Local Option Zoning, but that requires a petition process, public meetings and assembly approval, which can take time.

The conflict between property owners and gravel pit operators is nothing new nor unique to the Kenai Peninsula. Nearly everywhere in the country, neighbors have complained to local governing bodies about incoming gravel pit operations reducing their property values. In northern Colorado, fights between neighbors and gravel pit operators have been cropping up along the Front Range as residential areas spread and more development requires more gravel, according to the Coloradoan. A county board of commissioners in Greenfield, Indiana denied a proposal for a gravel pit in December 2017 after nearly 100 people complained about the neighborhood impact, according to Indiana newspaper the Greenfield Reporter.

On Wednesday, the material site working group discussed reclamation, bonding requirements, unregulated gravel pits and impacts on property values, all related to the impacts on surrounding residents. The group has not made any recommendations yet but plans to do so by the end of May.

Gravel pit operators are not currently required to restore the environments of the pits until the material is “exhausted.” The borough’s Planning Department has suggested changing that language to “disturbed” and setting a limit of five acres of disturbed land at a time, rather than an operator being able to leave a pit unrestored for years and say they have not exhausted the material yet.

The group members debated about what standard the borough should set for reclamation and agreed to visit a pit that has been reclaimed adequately as an example. The planning department also wasn’t sure whether to set the limit at five acres per season or five acres per permit renewal, said Borough Planning Director Max Best at the meeting.

The issue of reclamation is also tied up into bonding. Most mining operations are required to post a bond to begin operations, which allows the governing body to restore an area if the operator abandons it, such as the state plugging an oil or gas well if the company fails to do it. The Planning Department suggested requiring $2,000 in bond per acre of gravel pit, which would still not cover the entire cost of reclamation, Best said. The number was just a suggestion and could be based on an engineer’s estimate instead or what the group decides on, he said.

Group member Larry Smith made the point that gravel pits are necessary, as much as they may be disliked by neighbors.

“Those same people who are complaining about the pit are living in a house that’s on a gravel pad with a gravel driveway,” he said. “So they got their gravel from somewhere. It’s just that they don’t want the gravel pit being in close proximity to them.”

The reclamation requirements would be partially intended to alleviate concerns about the long-term impacts on property values for surrounding residents. Les Crane from the borough’s assessing department explained at the meeting that the borough doesn’t take adjacent gravel pit operations into account during property assessments — in part because the borough doesn’t have the sales data from those transactions before and after the presence of a gravel pit to build a model on. Sales prices are not required to be disclosed in the state of Alaska, though the borough does get some sales prices voluntarily from buyers and sellers. In the few sales he looked at, the properties were selling for more than the assessed value. There were some reductions in property value for properties near BlueCrest Energy’s drilling pad in Anchor Point after some sale values were reported, he said.

The operations also have an impact on quality of life for neighbors, said working group member Stacy Crouse.

“These are real, the dust issues are real, the noise issues are real,” she said. “They are affecting quality of life issues for property owners. Dust from haul roads covers their property and they can’t go out and use their properties. There’s no restriction on noise levels right now other than crushers, and it’s not enjoyable to be on your own property when the gravel pits are operating.”

The Material Site Working Group is planning a public listening session on Thursday at the borough assembly chambers in Soldotna at 6 p.m. for people to voice their concerns about the material site codes. A second meeting is planned for Chapman School in Anchor Point on April 7 at 1 p.m.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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