Gravel pit work group lays out plan

After more than a decade of fiery debates about gravel pits operating near homes, the Kenai Peninsula Borough is taking another look at its regulations on the sites.

 

This spring, a group of eight people on the borough’s Material Site Working Group are debating possible code changes. The group is scheduled to meet every other Wednesday until the end of May, considering input from members of the public, industry and borough regulators.

More than 300 gravel pits dot the Kenai Peninsula Borough, some operating constantly and others not at all. Each time a new permit comes before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission, the members gear themselves up for a fight. Neighbors often turn out to protest the incoming application, saying it will decrease their property values, increase traffic and be too noisy for a neighborhood. However, the Planning Commission has to approve it if the applicant has met all the requirements, whether or not the neighbors object.

One of those neighbors has been Sterling resident Dave Cleveland. He lives close to a gravel pit operated by Granite Construction off Adkins Road near the border of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The operations in the pit are loud, particularly the rock crusher during the day and the beeping sounds when trucks are backing up. Cleveland took sound readings on a decibel meter on his porch, noting spikes when the backup warning alerts go off.

“I had five kids living with me,” he said. “And by the end of the summer, they were all running around outside going, ‘beep, beep, beep.’”

Cleveland said he applied to be on the working group but was not selected. Nevertheless, he plans to continue attending the meetings and weighing in to help change the code to give property owners more say when a landowner applies for a gravel pit operation. He said he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted that to look like yet, though.

“To me, the basic issue is that the other property owners really can’t do anything about it if (the gravel pit applicants) meet that criteria,” he said. “I’m glad to see them trying to rework the ordinance. It’s very one-sided. It’s very slanted toward the operators.”

The gravel pit ordinance was last revised in 2006, after a long scuffle in Anchor Point over a gravel pit there. There are about 80 gravel pits that the borough Planning Department inspects and issues permits for, while there are about 250 that preexisted regulation. At the Material Site Working Group’s meeting Wednesday, the borough Planning Department staff presented preliminary recommendations for revising the code.

Borough Planning Director Max Best said the department began looking at the code at the request of the Planning Commission because of the volume of complaints it regularly receives whenever a conditional land use permit for a gravel pit comes up.

Among a number of other changes, the department’s suggestions include requiring the contractor to place a $2,000 bond per acre of developed material extraction site so the borough has some funds to help cover the reclamation costs if the owner does not reclaim the land after finishing operations. It would not completely cover the costs, though, Best said.

The revisions would also change the language to use “disturbed” property instead of “exhausted,” and require that an operator only disturb five acres of property at a time. That’s in part to keep gravel pits from continuing to grow, said Borough Planner Bruce Wall at the meeting.

“The other big thing here … is we’d like to get away from the term ‘exhausted,’” Wall said. “…’Disturbed’ is more quantifiable. And really that’s what reclamation is about. We don’t want more than five acres disturbed at a time. We want it to be incrementally reclaimed so we don’t have those growing eyesores.”

The revisions would also require the operator to report the elevation of the proposed excavation rather than the depth, in part to make it easier to determine if the operation will dig into groundwater tables. That’s a key concern for residents that the Planning Commission has heard, Best said.

“I’ve sat there many, many times and had to listen to the public say they didn’t have water because where the test hole was dug, they didn’t have water, but you could move down the hill and hit water if you had dug a test hole there — how do you monitor the fact that they’re not going to dig in the water?” Best said. “I had to go send people down to the gravel pit and dig holes in the bottom of the gravel pits to see that there’s not water. That’s not something I want to have people have to do.”

The department’s suggested changes also include limiting hours of operation to between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. with processing hours ending at 7 p.m., and possibly limiting noise levels at the parcel boundary to 60 decibels. The suggested changes could be debated and changed depending on the working group’s thoughts and public input, Best said.

Group chairman Robert Ruffner, who is also a member of the Planning Commission, introduced a rough timeline with presentations from various experts related to material site excavation to the group and opportunities for public comment at the end of March and beginning of April.

He said he wanted to allow the public as much of a chance to speak as possible, and scheduling public comment at every meeting would probably lead to them being limited on time, so there are no times for public comment at the meetings currently. However, comment is available on the borough’s website and the meetings are open to the public, he said.

“I hate to limit the public if they show up here,” he said. “… I feel like it would be really valuable for us to talk internally for several of these meetings to make sure we’re all on the same page … and don’t spend any time at all talking about amendments or changing the code, but really getting familiar with what we have already heard from public comment and the assembly and operators about what their concerns are.”

The group agreed on a mission statement at the beginning of the Wednesday meeting to evaluate the current codes and ensure that they are balanced to achieve both quality of life and affordable development. Group member Wayne Ogle noted that an important part of that mission statement was the inclusion of the phrase “appropriate balance.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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