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Public comment begins on gravel pit code revisions

Riley Board
A gravel pit located near Kenai.

Material extraction sites, or gravel pits, have been a hot issue in the Kenai Peninsula Borough for decades.

The latest revision of the gravel pit code — nine months in the making and accompanied by 40 amendments — was up for public comment at the assembly meeting Tuesday night, where it received spirited pushback from gravel pit owners. But it will be months before the borough makes a final decision on what may change about the code.

Pit owners and their neighbors have long debated how exactly the borough should regulate pits. A few years ago, the borough assembly tried to rewrite the code, and ended up voting down that plan. Now, they’re trying again to address concerns about the level of discretion that the planning commission and neighbors might have in gravel pit permitting.

The borough assembly has organized itself into a committee of the whole to address the gravel pit code changes. That means that rather than setting up a task force to look specifically at the code, as the assembly has done in the past, the entire assembly is working together to decide on code revisions.

The committee met earlier this month, on Oct. 11, to hear a presentation from Borough Planning Director Robert Ruffner, and again Tuesday, before the assembly meeting.

That structure has resulted in a more public process on this code revision. First, the borough informed all 160 peninsula gravel pit owners that they would be doing the revision and invited them to make public comments. Then, after another member of the public pointed out that neighbors of gravel pit owners are invested, too, the borough sent similar letters to everyone living within half a mile of a gravel pit.

Still, not everyone is happy with the rewrite.

“I feel this ordinance is too far-reaching, an industry killer,” Ed Martin, head of the Kenai Peninsula Aggregate Contractors Association, said.

“This will absolutely diminish growth in our borough, and hurt families’ ability to put food on the table. Please ask yourself before every vote: is the discomfort of a few residents worth the hunger and poverty of others.”

Other owners said they fear how new regulations would limit access to water, since the new ordinance would require certain permits for sites that extract within the water table.

Assembly members pointed out that new, prospective gravel pit owners will have to get those water table permits, but that existing gravel pit owners will be grandfathered in.

However, that was a sticking point for some commenters at the meeting, too. Sue Mauger, director of environmental nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper, said leaving existing gravel pit owners to dig into the water table could have adverse impacts on salmon streams.

A continued concern of some gravel pit neighbors, like Mark Tornai of Soldotna, is that they can be an eyesore and a source of noise.

“Which one of you would be in favor of having an unsightly, noisy or intrusive gravel pit in your front yard?” Tornai said.

Ruffner said existing gravel pit owners will not be strongly affected by the proposed ordinance. For pit owners with permits issued since 1998, there’s only one major change they’ll see when they renew their permits.

“Their renewal periods are every five years,” Ruffner said. “And at that five year renewal period, the thing they will need to do that is different from the past is that they would need to file a reclamation plan,” Ruffner said.

Reclamation is the process of putting a gravel pit back into a condition that is deemed acceptable for public safety once an area is done being extracted. This often involves removing dangerous slopes.

Ruffner said the other type of pits — those that have operated since before 1996 — will be barely affected under the new ordinance, except for some operations that want to start expanding or changing their type of use.

Still, Ruffner said no part of the rewrite is final and that the ordinance is a work in progress. The assembly is currently set to address the ordinance again at its Dec. 13 meeting, and then will likely vote some time in January — or perhaps later, if more revisions are necessary.

Riley Board is a Report For America reporter covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL.
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