Planning Commission Continues Hearing to May 23
MONTROSE – After presentations, discussion and divided public comment, the Montrose Planning Commission on Thursday unanimously voted to continue a special use permit hearing until May 23 to address some lingering concerns about a proposed gravel pit on top of Moonlight Mesa, south of Montrose.
“I think there are a number of loose ends that are not going to get tied up within the next hour,” Planning Commissioner David Seymour said, approximately four-and-a-half hours after the Thursday night meeting’s 6 p.m. start.
“I think we can, in 30 days, come up with a better special use permit that addresses some issues.”
Rocky Mountain Aggregate and Construction, LLC is proposing to build and operate the Uncompahgre Gravel pit on nearly 250 acres of land on top of Moonlight Mesa, nine miles south of Montrose and approximately one mile west of Hwy. 550 at the end of Montrose County’s T Road. The land is zoned general agricultural in the Montrose County Master Plan.
The gravel pit mining plan proposes to produce anywhere from 100,000-200,000 tons of gravel a year over the next 105 years. Over the course of that lifespan, the proposed gravel mining will occur in five stages. Stages 1-4 will create a pit 25-35 below the current terrace creating a berm and natural visual impact shield around the gravel pit. Stage 5 will take an estimated four years, while the berm is mined and the terrace elevation is lowered to the bottom pit level.
Rocky Mountain Aggregate and Construction is also proposing to operate both an asphalt and concrete batch plant in the pit, as well.
Because mining, asphalt and concrete operations will occur 25-35 feet below the surface of the mesa, surrounded by a berm throughout the first 100 years of the plan, engineer/reclamation specialist Greg Lewiski, who is representing the applicant in the review process, said the gravel pit will be virtually invisible to anyone living in the Hwy. 550 corridor.
“It’s extremely important to know that only 21 acres will be disturbed at any one time,” Lewiski said, of the plan to continuously mine and then reclaim the land within the pit. “As it advances, three to four acres will be mined and three to four acres will be reclaimed every year.”
Montrose County Planning and Development Director Steve White, in his staff report to the commission, recommended a continuance of the hearing until the fall to see if the Gunnison sage grouse is ultimately listed as an Endangered Species in late September. The site of the gravel pit lies on land that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed as critical habitat for the species.
Lewiski, who disagrees with Fish and Wildlisfe’s assessment, said the dry terrace land on Moonlight Mesa is not ideal habitat for the species, and that longtime residents and previous owners of the land have never seen a Gunnison sage grouse at that location.
“The sage grouse is probably the biggest issue right now,” Lewiski said. “We firmly believe it is not critical habitat. Nobody has seen one on this property to our knowledge. It has poor soils and poor vegetation. There is no water up on this mesa.”
For county planning and legal staff, however, questions remain regarding the effect the the potential endangered listing will have on the gravel pit, if it is approved.
Rocky Mountain Aggregate and Construction co-owner Zane Luttrell said, however, that because the species has not yet been listed as endangered, a potential listing should not affect the gravel pit’s permit application process.
“It is not a law yet,” Luttrell said, of the possible listing. “It is essential that we play with the rules we are faced with right now, and that’s how we look at it.”
Thursday’s hearing before a capacity crowd in Friendship Hall brought forth dozens of comments and concerns, both pro and con, about everything from decreased property values and environmental concerns to private property rights and the need for a gravel pit on the south end of town. For resident Albert Stowell, the industrial nature of a gravel pit operation doesn’t fit with the agricultural zoning of the area.
“You are being forced into the position of putting a round peg into a square hole,” Stowell told the planning commission. “You can glue as many duck feathers on a pig as you want; it doesn’t mean it’s going to fly. This isn’t a special use issue, this is an industrial zoning issue.”
Some who spoke in favor of the pit said at stake was a property rights issue.
“As far as I am concerned, a man owns property; he should have the right to do what he wants to do with it,” said Bob Duncan, who lives near the proposed site on Solar Road. “I have lived in this valley just short of 81 years….I have no objection whatsoever of the gravel pit and I am in direct airflow from the pit. I am not concerned one bit.”
While White recommended that the hearing be continued until the fall, commission members seemed intent on making a decision much sooner than that, and ultimately decided to continue for 30 days outlining a set of conditions they would like to see the planning department to work out with the applicant, including the number of days the asphalt plant can be in operation per year and how to mitigate the view of operations during the first few years when the pit has yet to be dug. Commission members may also consider reducing the approved lifespan of the permit from 100 years by half, or by some other measure.
“In listening to everything that has been said this evening, I have been getting the feeling that you are dying to get started on this yesterday,” said Commissioner Lana Kinsey. “It appears to me you do intend to be a good neighbor, but we do have some issues that deserve a little more attention on both sides of the fence here.”
Montrose County’s review of the special use permit application is a two-step process. If the permit receives approval from the planning commission, it will then go before the Montrose Board of County Commissioners for its ultimate review.
A parallel gravel permit application has been submitted to Colorado’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety for its approval as well.