MONTROSE – In a decision that brought silence to both its proponents and opponents Monday evening, the Montrose County Commissioners, by a vote of 2-0, denied approval of a special use permit for a proposed gravel pit atop Moonlight Mesa, just south of Montrose.
With Commissioner Ron Henderson absent at Monday’s public hearing while recovering from a medical emergency, commissioners Gary Ellis and David White rendered their denial of the special use permit at approximately 6:15 p.m. – more than six hours after the meeting got under way at 1 p.m. Ultimately the commissioners believed the adverse effects the operation would have on nearby residents was too great for approval.
“There are a number of issues I am concerned about,” Ellis said in making a motion to deny the special use application. “There are issues with its haul road, the length of time the asphalt plant can operate and the size of the pit. Right now, based on incompatibility issues I am going to make a motion to deny the application but also state that there is a place for you to reapply and address those issues.”
White seconded Ellis’ motion.
“I can’t, in good conscience, say yes to this,” White said. “The asphalt plant, the haul road and the size of the operation – these are my main concerns. I would welcome you to investigate other alternatives.”
Rocky Mountain Aggregate and Construction, LLC, proposed to build and operate the gravel pit, along with asphalt and concrete batch operations, on land zoned general agricultural 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 gravel pit mining plan would have produced anywhere from 100,000-200,000 tons of gravel a year over the next 105 years, as stated in the special use permit application Over the course of that lifespan, the proposed gravel mining would occur in five stages. Stages 1-4 would create a pit 25-35 below the current terrace creating a berm and natural visual impact shield around the gravel pit. Stage 5 would take an estimated four years while the berm would be mined and the terrace elevation lowered.
Janice Wheeler, a vocal opponent of the gravel pit who lives on T Road, said she was “thrilled” with the commissioners’ decision to listen to those who had so many concerns.
“I was surprised,” Wheeler said on Tuesday. “It was nice to see our commissioners listening to common sense and taking into consideration the majority of people in the south valley.”
Zane Luttrell, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Aggregate, said on Tuesday that despite Monday’s denial of the special use permit, he intends to work toward making the gravel pit a reality and will modify its plans to do so.
“First and foremost our thoughts and prayers are with Commissioner Henderson,” Luttrell said. “This is not the end of the road by any means. We will take into consideration the questions raised by the commissioners and work toward another plan.”
The commissioners’ decision to deny the special use permit application came as a surprise after Ellis made comments just before 6 p.m. that he was, perhaps, leaning toward a second continuation of the hearing so he could look over new information presented at the meeting.
“I would personally like to have a little bit of time to do some personal investigation and then come back and make a decision,” Ellis said. “I am not trying to buy time, I am trying to do the right thing. I can’t guarantee what the outcome will be but including Ron in this, when he is feeling better, really is the right thing to do.”
At that point, White asked if they could “meet for a couple of minutes” to consult with county staff, presumably to discuss when a date and time could be set to continue the hearing. After exiting Friendship Hall to the adjacent parking lot with several members of staff, Ellis and White returned almost 15 minutes later and rendered their denial of the application. The Montrose County Planning Commission had recommended approval of the gravel pit prior to the board of commissioner hearings.
Once again, Friendship Hall was at capacity with members of the public who were sharply divided as to whether the gravel pit should be approved or not. Many who live near the proposed gravel pit expressed concern that the industrial operation would devalue their property.
“I have considerable investment on our location which has already decreased in value by $83,000 in 2012,” resident Keith Rasmussen said. Rasmussen said he recently read a study that found property values located within a mile of a gravel pit, that resident should expect valuation decrease by another 15 percent.
“We definitely will get a devaluation with this considerable gravel pit. I respectfully request for this industrial complex to be denied.”
Chauncey Luttrell, a representative of Rocky Mountain Aggregate, said he lives near the area and that property values are just as important to him as everyone else and that air pollution and dust suppression are still heavily regulated.
“The last thing I want to do is devalue my property price,” Luttrell said. “We have paid taxes in this valley for four generations. All we are wanting to do is to continue on in providing service in this valley in a good and safe manner. We are so regulated by the federal government, the last thing I want to do is get a citation for being out of compliance.”
Monday’s hearing was a continuation of the public hearing held on June 17 when the commissioners determined that they couldn’t make a decision because of the possibility that U.S. Fish and Wildlife would list the Gunnison sage-grouse as an Endangered Species.
The 250 acres land on top of the mesa, which Rocky Mountain Aggregate is leasing for the mining operation, was included in the 1.7 million acres of land that could be designated critical Gunnison sage-grouse habitat if the species is listed as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife was expected to make a decision on the endangered listing on Sept. 30 but has since postponed that decision until for another six months.
With that potential endangered species still in limbo, the Montrose commissioners have signed onto a memorandum of understanding with 10 other counties in western Colorado and eastern Utah pledging to do everything possible to increase the bird’s population numbers. With that, county staff has been drafting new regulations, which have yet to be formally approved, that aim to protect the Gunnison sage-grouse and the species’ habitat at the local level. Under these 1041 Regulations, which are still being finalized, development in the county, including any special use permits, planned unit developments, subdivisions and new structures that are located within an adopted sage-grouse map must go through an additional review process with the county.
Even though those regulations have yet to be formally passed by the commissioners, engineer/reclamation specialist Greg Lewiski, who was representing Rocky Mountain Aggregate on Monday, said that the gravel pit operator would be willing to adhere to those proposed regulations and laid out a Gunnison sage-grouse habitat mitigation plan.
First, Lewiski said, all fences near the gravel pit would be “sage-grouse friendly” and that a 20 m.p.h. speed limit would be mandatory for all vehicles on the mesa. If a lek becomes established by sage-grouse within .6 miles of gravel pit, no mining, hauling or processing will occur between midnight and 11 a.m. March-June 30 each year to “minimize disturbances to birds on the lek.”
Lastly, as part of this mitigation plan, Rocky Mountain Aggregate would commit to provide funding to improve Gunnison sage-grouse habitat on 100 acres of land per year for four years. Lewiski suggested that habitat could be improved on nearby Simms Mesa under the direction of Colorado Parks and Wildlife but details have not yet been completely worked out. “Even though they (1041 Regulations) are not retroactive and they don’t apply to us, we decided to go ahead and provide a required mitigation plan that would be under those measures,” Lewiski said.
Lewiski went on to say that there couldn’t be more of a perfect place for a gravel operation that can serve growth in the south end of Montrose County.
“If this pit is not approved, the likely place it will come from is from the pits on the north end of town that have significant reserves,” Lewiski said. “That means all that gravel would have to come through town. It means there are many more truck miles, more CO2 emissions, more rocks on windshields. If we are concerned about safety on the road, that has to be taken into account.”
Despite that sage-grouse mitigation plan and Rocky Mountain Aggregate’s agreement to move its haul road off of T Road approximately 100 feet to the south, Ellis and White concluded that there were too many questions left unanswered and that there were too many instances where the gravel pit, as proposed, was incompatible with its surroundings.
“This is a very, very large operation,” White said. “When people buy property, they buy property with an assumption they can rely on zoning.”