Gravel pit ordinance put off

Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2005

Final resolution of the debate surrounding a controversial gravel-pit ordinance currently before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will have to wait at least until November.

The assembly heard well over an hour of public testimony and then held a lengthy discussion of Ordinance 2005-13, a measure meant to clarify conditions under which the borough would grant a materials-site land-use permit. However, members voted to postpone action until the meeting of Nov. 1 in order to gather testimony from experts practiced in the science of hydrogeology —the movement of groundwater.

Under current borough law, neighbors living next to already permitted gravel pits who may be experiencing water disruptions bear the burden of proving that those disruptions were caused by pit operations.

Ordinance 2005-13 would shift that burden to the pit operator. More importantly, it would require that prior to a permit being issued, a land-use permit applicant demonstrate that pit operations would not harm local aquifers.

A series of amendments approved by the assembly served to focus the ordinance's proposed language.

For instance, the assembly dispensed with vague and debatable terms requiring an applicant to provide "reasonable and compelling" evidence that extraction would not negatively impact an aquifer, substituting more simply "convincing."

In another area, the assembly approved language specifically stating the borough Planning Commission could use information gathered by planners, engineers and other professionals to set permit conditions. The ordinance's sponsor, Dan Chay of Kenai, said the borough legal department had advised that the added language was necessary to show that intent clearly.

Largely satisfied that the amended language covered the bases, and with at least some of the members apparently ready to agree that material sites needed further regulation, the assembly appeared ready for a final vote. But one phrase continued to give several assembly members pause, and resulted in the delay until November.

That phrase involved a proposed condition the Planning Commission would be authorized, but not required, to impose on a permit applicant —specifically, that a permit applicant supply a signed statement by a certified hydrologist (subsequently changed to "qualified independent civil engineer or professional hydrogeologist" since Alaska has no license for "hydrologist") that a material site development "will not negatively impact the quantity and quality of an aquifer serving other properties."

Assembly member Ron Long of Seward said he doubted an engineer or scientist would risk his or her state license by issuing such an absolute guarantee. Long urged a delay that would give the assembly time to hear directly from experts.

"Before we ask a hydrologist or a hydrogeologist to sign off on it we should have them tell us what their level of comfort is, whether its 90 percent of 99 percent or absolute," Long said. "If we are really serious about getting professional opinions on this, let the professionals speak to us about it."

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