Tradition, Property Rights Clash In Gravel Pit Debate

Part of the area on T Road in Southern Montrose County where a gravel pit is proposed to be developed. Several residents are fighting the proposed operation. Photo by Barton Glasser

Part of the area on T Road in Southern Montrose County where a gravel pit is proposed to be developed. Several residents are fighting the proposed operation.
Photo by Barton Glasser

 MONTROSE—(May 15)  When she bought her home on Moonlight Mesa in 2000, Janice Wheeler thought she was set for life.

  “It was a quiet, dead end road, south of town,” she said. “I had it made! I came here from Copper Mountain, and this was the lifestyle that I wanted. I have 1.17 acres, and I have an organic garden on half of it. I grow a lot of what I use in my catering business, and almost all of what we eat here. I have chickens.”

“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that this would happen.”

What has happened in an application for a 250-acre gravel pit, just 1,200 feet from Wheeler’s front door. If the pit is ultimately approved, production is expected to be around 104,000 tons annually, with an operational life span of 105 years. Twenty-four ton trucks loaded with gravel would roll in and out daily along a portion of T-Road with direct access to Highway 550.

“It’s a monster,” said Wheeler, who has attended meetings and contacted local officials to make her concerns about the gravel pit application known. “I feel like they listen to me, but then they tell me it doesn’t matter, that this is the way we have always done it—that these kinds of operations are allowed on agricultural land  in Montrose County.

“But this doesn’t belong here.”

A special use hearing with regard to the pit has been continued until May 23, to allow planning commissioners time to address remaining concerns. According to an April 25 report by Montrose County Planning and Development Director Steve White to the Montrose County Planning Commission, a number of neighbors have written letters of concern with regard to the project. White notes also that approval is contingent on the Applicant’s providing a mitigation plan that would address the Gunnison Sage Grouse Critical Habitat, as Montrose County has entered in a Memorandum of Understanding with other counties to address the Gunnison Sage Grouse Critical Habitat areas.

The pit under consideration is owned by Zane Lutrell’s Rocky Mountain Aggregate and Construction, LLC, which is located on acreage owned by the Lazy K Bar Land and Cattle Company. To gain approval, the owners would also have to meet Colorado Department of Highways’ standards for access to Highway 550, and a number of other conditions as listed in the Planning and Development Director’s report.

Whether or not Montrose County ultimately approves a 250-acre gravel pit on Moonlight Mesa, the issue is not a new one. Delta County Commissioners have denied two recent applications for gravel pit operations on California Mesa and in Crawford because of opposition by neighboring landowners, but approved a specific development application for the Cook gravel pit on 25 Mesa Road, which would supply gravel for the county’s own uses—a move that Delta County Independent Reporter Hank Lohmeyer called “the County Government’s competition with local private enterprise.”

Gravel is a natural resource cheaply obtained, and essential to growth. According to the most recent sand and gravel mineral commodity summary prepared by the United States Geological Survey (Jan. 2013), Colorado is the seventh largest producer of sand and gravel in the U.S. Nationwide, the industry is worth about $6.4 billion, with about 6,500 operations in 50 states. Construction sand and gravel is used in concrete aggregates and road base and stabilization, among other construction uses. The Commodity Summary also notes that “Growth in housing starts in 2012 is increasing demand for construction sand and gravel in many states.”

A large amount of sand and gravel is needed to build and maintain highways, as well as communities, said Steve Whitehurst, a project manager and estimator for Skip Huston Construction in Montrose, a company that has been operating locally for 30 years. Up-front costs to develop a Gravel pit are usually very high, he noted, and can run into the millions.

“Transportation is really important,” Whitehurst said. “The pit needs to be as close to the projects as possible, because the cost of trucking is prohibitive.

“Gravel is a sensitive issue,” he said. “We work for a lot of government entities, and we use and buy a lot of it to do what we do. The engineers who design projects require it. We all want it and need it, but nobody wants a gravel pit in their back yard—we like a tranquil, undisturbed environment.

“It’s a hard thing, and every community has this issue because of the high cost of transportation.”

Many view the proposed gravel pit on Moonlight Mesa as a benefit to the community, said Montrose County Planning and Development Director Steve White.

“It’s a catch-22,” White said. “Gravel is a resource, and we know where it is available in the county. Every pit will have issues—traffic, noise, dust. But it is mined where it is economically viable; we look at whether it works in a location, and what mitigating factors are needed to make it work. On this mesa, it will be difficult to see the operation.”

The planning commission will continue to look at mitigation factors at the May 23 planning commission hearing, he said, noting that a fairly large neighborhood near the pit will be less impacted than the homes on T-Road, and that the pit applicants must also work out highway access issues with CDOT.

“The state highway is the only way out, so CDOT will require improvements for safety,” White said. “There are always neighborhood concerns, even outside of town like this. But gravel is going to come from somewhere, and it’s not coming from Ouray. There are water rights on the property; they can use the canal for dust control, and pipe water in for the concrete plant.

“Overall, it’s a pretty good plan, and this county is supportive of resource development,” he said. “Like the hydro plant east of town—we were also supportive of that.”

A successful entrepreneur herself, Janice Wheeler said that she does see both sides of the issue.

“I get it, but it’s frustrating,” she said. “We are in drought–is this really the proper use for all that water? The county is helping one family, but 300 families will be affected negatively.

“I am in business, so I do understand,” she added. “But the smell of my chocolate chip cookies baking does not bother people the way the dust and noise from all those trucks will.”