New gravel pit regulation moves on to public comment next month
A new overhaul to Kenai Peninsula Borough code regarding gravel pits and other material sites is up for public comment next month — the latest in a years-long effort to rework the borough’s permitting process and draw compromise between those gravel pit owners and those who live nearby.
Gravel pit owners and their neighbors have long been at odds over how far the borough should go when it comes to regulating pits. Planning Director Robert Ruffner has seen those regulations revised three times during his tenure on the borough planning commission.
He said some of the main concerns from neighbors include dust created by the sites and the potential impact on aquifer drinking water.
“Gravel is an important construction material. We can’t build stuff on poor soil and we have a lot of poor soil scattered throughout the peninsula. So, we also have to balance that against protecting peoples’ rights to have some peace and quiet in their homes,” Ruffner said.
There’s little zoning in the borough, which means the placement of gravel pits is largely unregulated. Historically, the planning commission approved all proposed pits, as long as they met the conditions laid out in the borough code.
That was until a landowner in Anchor Point raised concerns about a gravel pit permit next to his property.
The landowner pursued his opposition to the permit through the legal system until it reached the Superior Court, where the judge ruled that the landowner had been irreparably harmed by aesthetic impact of a gravel pit to the residential property, and implored the Planning Commission to consider the loss of property value caused by proximity to a material site.
The realization that the planning commission has the power to use discretion in denying gravel pits has caused concern among potential materials site operators and encouragement among residents who don’t want gravel pits in their neighborhood. This spurred a need to revise the borough regulations again.
In last week’s borough assembly meeting, Assembly Member Lane Chesley explained how a previous attempt by the assembly to rewrite regulations last winter was rejected by both interested parties. An assembly subcommittee started over with a new rewrite and Chesley was appointed chairman.
The result is the 23-page ordinance before the assembly today.
“This has been a really long process that the borough went through to try to find some common ground to address issues between private property owners and aggregate producers in the Kenai Peninsula Borough,” Chesley said.
One of the most significant differences between this new ordinance and previous revisions is the introduction of a multi-permit structure, where materials sites that extract within the water table will require more heightened protections, and activities that do *not* will not require such permits. It also moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach to permitting and will allow for more flexibility depending on the nature of an application.
In the meeting, Assembly Members Richard Derkevorkian
and Tyson Cox said they worry the ordinance does not appropriately balance public interests. Several Anchor Point residents from either side of the issue testified that they are not happy with the proposed changes.
But Assembly Member Cindy Ecklund said it’s time to move forward on the issue, even if the ordinance is imperfect. She told the assembly that, in her experience on the planning commission, issues related to material sites were always the most contentious.
“We need to start somewhere. With the input that we have gotten, I think that we can move forward with this. I just don’t want it to sit any longer,” Ecklund said.
Despite the pushback by some members, the ordinance moved onto the public hearing phase.
Next, the assembly will host public hearings on the new regulations, as well as a panel on water impact, to gather input on the newest form of the ordinance.
One major public concern about gravel pits is their impact on groundwater and the effect they can have on subsurface aquifers. Next Tuesday at 1 p.m., a panel of water experts — two from the state and one private sector hydrogeologist — will speak to the assembly about how the proposed regulations relate to water.
The ordinance will be up for further public comment at the Sept. 6 and Sept. 20 assembly meetings.
Ruffner has experienced three different materials site code rewrites over the last 25 years. He said he's anticipating a lively public comment period.
“What I fully expect to have happen is that there will be a fair amount of concern from a few landowners that have recently dealt with the Planning Commission, and I expect that they will be present and making comments and fully engaged,” Ruffner said. “And then I think the commercial sector that does this work, they’re very concerned about making sure that we have a good balance between protecting neighborhoods and also making sure that we have some economically viable rules that they can continue to operate with.”
Ruffner is encouraged by the opportunity that the assembly will have to debate the regulations.