Borough between rock, hard place on gravel pit

Posted: Thursday, February 23, 2006

Anchor Point gravel pit owners who wish only to make a living off their land, and their neighbors who fear extraction operations could make living next door a miserable experience are realizing that in some ways they are sailing in the same leaky boat.

Current borough code governing material site permitting is in need of serious revision, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has been wrestling with ideas about how to do that for almost a year.

Ordinance 2006-01, introduced in early January, proposes stricter permitting requirements, obligations and procedures for pit operators, including avoiding disruption of area water tables, dust and noise control and more.

Furthermore, it would require the borough planning department to investigate any complaint by neighbors and action against an operator if a violation were discovered.

Current law puts the onus on the complainant to prove gravel pit operations are the cause of problems, such as disruption of well water supply.

The proposed ordinance, however, remains a long way off the mark, said representatives of both sides who testified Tuesday during a public hearing.

“Right now there is no zoning, so both the operators and the homeowners feel a little bit unprotected,” said Jeanette Shafer, who along with her husband, Cap, and other family members run Dibble Creek Rock, a North Fork Road gravel operation.

Assembly President Ron Long, of Seward, asked Shafer how she felt about creating residential zones and industrial zones.

“I guess I lean that way,” she said. “I would be real cautious about zoning over the top of what is already existing, but at least in zoned areas, both sides can feel a little bit protected.”

At the present time, she added, both sides are feeling frustrated and the borough may have to consider moving toward assuming zoning powers.

Cap Shafer referenced several provisions in the proposed ordinance. One would require the renewal of a gravel pit land-use permit every five years, and renewal would hinge on meeting the most up-to-date laws. That unpredictability could prove problematic for operators.

“For companies to be able to plan ahead, they must be able to bank on conditions remaining the same while market conditions develop to the circumstances that make it feasible for them to develop the parcel,” he said. “Also, there is no assurance that an operator will be able to continue to operate as people move in around them ... when their permit comes up for renewal.”

A permit, once issued, should be valid until the owner of the pit relinquishes it, he said.

Another provision covering wetlands would require that a 100-foot-wide undisturbed buffer be left separating extraction areas from lakes, rivers and streams. Shafer said he failed to see the logic of the restriction.

“Digging in wetlands should be allowed,” he said. “This is different from digging in a stream or existing lake where pollution and contamination is certain. As far as I know, it is legal to dig in wetlands.”

Extracting material from a wetlands could produce a lake, which Shafer said would not only remain a wetland, but be “more valuable to the ecosystem than swamp lands.”

That may be debatable. The earth and gravel in swampy wetlands act as filters to clean the water passing through, a function not necessarily done by a deep lake. Also, wetlands can act like sponges in flood seasons, said assembly member Dan Chay, of Kenai.

The proposed ordinance would ban operations between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and disallow operation of noisy processing and conditioning equipment, like crushers, between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. That could seriously impact an operator’s ability to fulfill gravel contracts for such things as road building, Shafer said, pointing out that the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities often requires road jobs be conducted at night to avoid traffic disruption and because it is safer.

The proposed restrictions “don’t make sense for Alaska” with its short work season, he said.

Anchor Point resident Connie Alderson said gravel mining in residential areas must be looked at closely.

“It’s really not fair for a homeowner to have a piece of property and then someone come in next door and start a gravel pit up,” she said. “How would you like to live next to a gravel pit where there is crushing going on, gravel trucks, loaders? It’s very annoying.”

She said there was nothing in the ordinance addressing pits moving into established residential areas, and that perhaps the borough should simply not issue permits in residential areas at all.

“That would eliminate a lot of this,” she said.

Because it lacks general zoning powers, the borough has no way to differentiate between residential-, commercial- and industrial-use areas. The borough, however, has adopted a procedure called Local Option Zoning, whereby neighbors can agree to restrict development in a neighborhood. Alderson said she and her neighbors had looked at that, but acknowledged not pursuing the option.

“That might be an option to think about, because we don’t have that kind of zoning in the borough,” said assembly member Milli Martin, of Diamond Ridge.

Assembly member Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, asked Alderson what she thought about boroughwide zoning.

“That’s what you are talking about. Not just local option but zoning on a pretty large scale,” he said.

“Well, I think that’s a possibility,” Alderson returned, adding that it might, however, be simpler for the borough in the permitting process to examine the areas in which gravel pits are proposed, and to reject those that would abut clearly residential areas as a matter of policy. In other words, include a provision that protects the residential property owner.

“We’re not getting represented,” she said.

Helen Schwert, a resident of North Fork Road, said she supports revising the current gravel pit ordinance to better protect water sources.

“Unfortunately, in many respects, proposed ordinance 2006-01 is actually less protective of aquifers than the current law,” she said.

Schwert then presented the assembly with 13 pages of suggested improvements.

Along with Alderson, Schwert and four other Anchor Point residents sued the borough last July over material site permit issues. That case has not been resolved and no court date has been set.

The assembly postponed further action until the meeting of March 14, at which time a substitute ordinance incorporating further revisions is expected to be introduced. At least two more public hearings will be scheduled at that time.

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