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Assembly could finalize gravel code revision this week

Riley Board
A gravel pit located in Kenai.

Tonight, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly may finalize a revision to its code that regulates the operation of gravel pits, a years-in-the-making vote that has been characterized by discontentment from operators and dozens of amendments from assembly members.

In its fourth review in a period of almost 30 years, assembly members are trying to write a gravel pit code that balances the desires of pit operators and their neighbors.

Gravel pits, or material extraction sites, provide a necessary resource for building roads and homes. But the dust, noise and visual impacts have frequently met protests from neighbors, especially in unincorporated areas of the peninsula like Anchor Point that don’t have zoning.

“So trying to balance this need for good materials to build on, and needing to extract that, and balancing that with protecting peoples’ private property rights that are adjacent to those, is one of those struggles that…that’s what planning and zoning type activities do, that’s what our department is tasked with taking on for the borough,” said Robert Ruffner, the planning director for the borough.

He said the first gravel pit ordinance went into effect in the late 1990s, and he’s been through every revision since.

“Every time they come up, they’re controversial,” he said. “Lot of passion involved, with people taking positions and trying to stake out their vested interest in what we do on the landscape.”

The latest revision was spurred by a lawsuit, related to the level of discretion the planning commission has when approving pits. It began in July 2022. Assembly member Lane Chesley, who heads up the subcommittee focused on the code revision, said over the last year, it’s undergone more than 60 amendments, and more than a hundred votes.

In a September public hearing at the assembly chambers in Soldotna, more than a dozen gravel pit owners expressed grievances with the code revision. They critiqued it for being unclear and said it would have a negative financial impact on the local industry. Sean Cude was one of those operators.

“There has to be a process that makes this easier and makes sense, and is economical,” Cude testified. “Because if it doesn’t make sense and it’s not economical, people are gonna quit buying and developing, and the resource gets more shrunk, more limited, and the cost goes up from there.”

Following that night, the subcommittee hosted an informational meeting for the public.

But at a later September meeting in Homer — part of the assembly’s effort to meet constituents across the whole borough — it was a different story. Hours worth of testimony were generally supportive of the code revision, and of even stronger restrictions of gravel pits. Homeowner Ann Cline thanked the assembly for its work so far, but advocated for further clarity on enforcement.

“You can expend countless hours writing the perfect ordinance that addresses the bigger picture of long-term effects, but unless it is enforced, your time is wasted and your residents will pay the price,” she said. “While we’re here on this earth, it is incumbent upon us to honorably manage our land for the future. Hopefully clear ordinances will make it easy for everyone to abide.”

Some speakers praised protections of salmon-bearing streams added to the ordinance. At that meeting, assembly members took up five amendments, then postponed the revision to Oct. 10.

The assembly could take up the code revision for a vote tonight at its regular meeting at 6 p.m. in Soldotna. This is the last meeting that will include several assembly members who have worked on the code revision but are not running for reelection, including Lane Chesley.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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