Gravel pit owners still unhappy as assembly approaches final regulation vote
After more than a year of effort on a gravel pit code revision, the Kenai Peninsula Borough held its first public hearing on the plan Tuesday night. Gravel pit owners turned out to show discontentment with the latest revision, while the assembly emphasized their commitment to finding a solution.
Material extraction sites, or gravel pits, have been controversial in the borough for decades. The gravel is necessary for building roads and houses, and operators, especially long-time operators, are vocal advocates for their rights to continue as they always have.
But neighbors of gravel pits are also vocal, about the visual impacts, noise, dust and hits to property value. Environmental groups have concerns too, about possible effects on groundwater and salmon.
The borough assembly started a code revision in July 2022, its fourth attempt over the last few decades to update gravel pit guidelines, and a response to questions about the level of discretion the Planning Commission should have when approving pits.
Assembly member Lane Chesley heads up the subcommittee working on the revision. He said over the last year, it’s gone through 63 amendments, and more than a hundred votes.
“There has to be a process that makes this easier, and makes this make sense, and is economical,” said pit operator Sean Cude. “Because if it doesn’t make sense and it’s not economical, people are gonna quit buying and developing, and the resource shrinks, and the cost goes up from there.”
Cude was one of more than a dozen gravel pit operators who testified that the revision had clarity issues, and would create negative financial impacts to their industry. Some requested individual word or policy changes, while others said the whole ordinance was too overreaching.
Ed Martin III, president of the Kenai Peninsula Aggregate Contractors Association, put together a list of 18 grievances based on the assembly’s latest draft of the code. He presented the complaints to the assembly.
Operator Josh Holly offered an overall critique.
“People who don’t have pits are not happy, people who have pits are not happy. I don’t think you guys aren’t happy,” Holly said. “This isn’t affecting you guys, you’re just trying to do what’s best for everyone. But this is not the answer.
A few neighbors turned out as well, and called on the assembly to make stronger protections for homeowners with gravel pit concerns. Jeanne Bilben said she understands the necessity of gravel, but she wants neighbors to be protected when a gravel pit moves in next door.
“The reason why there’s only a few of us here from homeowners, is because the homeowners don’t know who they are yet that are gonna be affected with this in the future,” Bilben said.
After public testimony, Planning Director Robert Ruffner answered questions from the assembly, which discussed the merits and issues with the revision. Assembly member Cindy Ecklund expressed confidence in completing the process while integrating pit operator comments, and clarifying aspects of the code, like for Prior Existing Use pits or PEUs.
“We have to look at both sides when we find a balance,” Ecklund said. “I’m kind of happy with where we’re at, but I know that we need some tweaking on the PEUs. We need some more definitions, we need to clear up anything that is not transparent and black and white.”
When public comment began back in October, Ruffner hoped a vote would happen in January, or perhaps a bit later. Now, the assembly will host a second hearing on the code revision at its Sept. 19 meeting in Homer, and possibly vote then. Assembly President Brent Johnson is hoping to vote before the Oct. 3 election, when the assembly will see turnover of some members — Chesley, who has headed up the revision, is not running for reelection.
The assembly also discussed plans to host a public information meeting on the subject before that vote, although the date hasn’t yet been set.