Over 50 people testified during the latest Matanuska Susitna Borough (MSB) Assembly meeting this past Tuesday, as part of the lengthy public hearings related to a proposal to increase conditional permits related to gravel excavations.
The ordinance, crafted by Assemblyman Mokie Tew, calls for expanding the cubic yards of gravel that can be extracted without a permit from 2,000 cubic yards to 10,000 cubic yards. The ordinance has faced backlash from constituents, who fear the landscape will become dotted with personal gravel pits, and the possible ecological and infrastructure impacts could do irrevocable harm to the land, water, and property value. Supporters have said this ordinance protects personal rights and would be an economic boon to the community.
Just 24 hours earlier, the MSB Planning Commission meeting, which had a motion on the agenda to rescind approval of the ordinance and recommending denial of the proposal, instead voted to remove it from the agenda. Several members cited the last-minute addition of some amendments that should also be reviewed, and there wasn’t enough time to do that before the meeting.
“There have been quite a few stipulations added, that should have been added originally to the gravel extraction. The 2,000 yards has absolutely no rules or guidelines, where this (new proposal) has some meat to it, gives some guidance that is enforceable. I feel this should go forward to the Assembly with the idea that they’re going to put these amendments in there,” said Commissioner Rick Allen, and other commissioners agreed that the amendments should be added into the ordinance moving forward, letting the MSB Assembly handle it.
Commissioner Allen did tell the other members that the large response he has received in regards to the proposal has been in opposition to it, saying the rescinding the proposal is the “clear directive of the people of the Borough,” before saying that he had intended to do that.
“I’m challenging the Assembly to change the legislation that allowed this process to happen,” said Planning chair William Kendig. After telling Planning members that he received a disturbing call alleging mishandling of public notice of the proposal and defending the Planning Staff for their professionalism.
Before opening up the public hearings regarding the ordinance, several Assembly members addressed the issue of recusal and personal conflict. Assembly members Tew, Yundt, and Fonov all stated that while they work in areas of excavating and building, they didn’t perceive any need to recuse, but would do so if MSB Mayor Edna DeVries felt there was a need. She voiced no need for anyone to recuse at this time.
Tew, who during the public hearing faced several calls to recuse, stated that while he had previously worked in the gravel business, he is several years removed from that industry and that while he has property with pits on them, none are active at this time. He did not see a need to recuse himself.
Gary Foster spoke in favor of the proposal, stating:
“I wanted to come in and say that I’m in support of it. I’ve had to move myself about 9,000 cubic yards on another piece of property that I own, and didn’t know that I was required to get a permit,” Foster said. He then told the Assembly that he didn’t sell the gravel, rather moved it to another piece of property owned by another individual.
David Palmer started off by commending Assembly member Tew for “promoting economic development,” then thanked the Assembly members who put forth amendments that would minimize impact in community development before stating his support of the ordinance.
“I’m in support of this, but I’m also in support of doing this in a way that does not adversely impact the surrounding areas. I believe it can be done.”
But the majority of those who took to the podium spoke in opposition to the ordinance.
“Why again? We have gone through this legislation in the past and the people have spoken and they don’t want it in this way,” said Dianne Lada of Big Lake. “It’s taken 15 years to go 500 cubic feet, and now all of a sudden 10,000? Why?”
Lada said that she recognizes the need for gravel but believes there is a better way, and it isn’t in the neighborhoods.
“They only degrade and tear down communities. We’ve already seen our lakefront begin to change with smaller pits. Why unpermitted, why unfettered?”
Lada also voiced a concern that others expressed with regards to a possible conflict of interest from some of the Assembly, and asked why they didn’t recuse from the discussion.
“I do see is a bias, a conflict of interest,” she told members, giving an example of how she cannot vote on Medicare reimbursements at her job, since she is the one writing those orders.
“I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated because this has come to fruition 3 times. This is my third time trying to address personal use pits,” Carolyn Kiel told members, saying that there is a gravel pit right next to her home, but is also concerned with what this ordinance could mean in terms of increased traffic in her neighborhood.
“The issue is the West Lakes Shore Road is 2 lanes. We have traffic coming and going all the time. We’ve got cyclists, we’ve got pedestrians. There’s no room. You’ve got the noise, you’ve got the back-up equipment. There’s dust in the area, and I’m concerned about safety issues,” she said.
Many others voiced concerns about environmental issues, whether or not the infrastructure could handle an increase of trucks and heavy equipment, especially in areas where roads may not be able to withstand such traffic. Others said they were concerned at the lack of notification, lack of regulations, and the lack of a permit.
All told, 47 constituents spoke in opposition to the ordinance, and 5 spoke in favor.
There were 3 proposed amendments to the original ordinance from members Rob Yundt, Ron Bernier, and Stephanie Nowers.
Assembly member Yundt proposed several changes, including that anyone extracting 2,001 to 10,000 cubic yards of gravel, on any parcel, must register annually with the Borough, and that those annual registrations cannot be filed more than 5 times; extraction site shall not be within one-half mile from any other registered or permitted extraction site, excluding pits with pre-existing legal non-conforming status; only extraction and screening of gravel products is allowed-further processing is not allowed; extraction may not occur within 100 feet of any body of water, just to name a few. Yundt also proposed that any gravel operator unable to meet the requirements must apply for a conditional use permit.
Assembly member Bernier proposed that the topographical features may be flattened to a useable surface, but shall not create a hole or depression that could limit further development later.
Assembly member Nowers proposed an amendment that includes visual screening, noise mitigation, lighting restrictions and road/access restrictions for surrounding developments, as well as adding 2 new sections that would address acknowledgement and approval for extraction activities by the planning director.
“Before issuing approval or denial or a registration, the planning director will issue notification to surrounding property owners in accordance with MSB 17.03 public notification, except the notification will be one half mile; and hold a public hearing within 30 days of receiving a signed registration statement to consider the applicant’s ability to comply with the standards of operations.”
The other section her amendment would add that the planning director shall set visual screening, noise mitigation, lighting restrictions and road/access restrictions as appropriate for surrounding development and in accordance with development standards.
When the public hearings closed, the Assembly was left to discuss the next step. Assembly member Tew spoke on the ordinance, saying that
“100,000 yards is not enough to support a gravel pit on its own. More so, this will be a great tool in the toolbox. I believe that we, as elected members of the community have a responsibility to the community to, and should help in any way, the growth and prosperity of our community.”
He then laid out how the ordinance benefits the community, saying that the closer the access to gravel, the less the cost of it, and the flatter the land, the more houses can be built, and with more houses built, more jobs and taxes that can come from it.
Tew also addressed the trucking of gravel, saying that “the closer the gravel, the less the miles on the roads.”
Meanwhile, Assembly member Nowers said that she saw a couple of issues with the ordinance, saying that it was should not have been before them.
“I don’t think that we should even be here tonight. This was poorly thought out from the beginning, and there was no justification in the write-up.”
She also argued that she believed the pits could be detrimental.
“This ordinance ignores the impact that gravel pits can have. Significant impacts on our roads and our property values,” she said. She then balked at the idea that the ordinance would remove private property owners’ voices when it comes to how the pits could impact their properties.
“This is an attempt to cut costs by passing them on to the rest of us instead, silencing us from having a comment and input, legitimately, on the impacts these kinds of operations can have.”
Nowers felt that the ordinance should be voted down and re-worked and presented again at a later time.
Assembly member Ron Bernier proposed postponing the ordinance until March 21, as there is a joint MSB Assembly/Planning Commission meeting next week.
“Let’s meet up with them, hash this thing out, and do what’s right.”
Assembly member Tim Hale said that he believes the system in place works fine, and that this ordinance and the amendments “cobble together” something that might not work. He also expressed concern that there would be an increase in the gravel pits, and the unintended consequences once the resources have been exhausted.
“People will move on nobody’s doing any reclamation, and the squatters move in and drag in junk cars, and pretty soon it’s another ‘Butte compound.’ And that falls on us.”
Assembly member McKee mentioned that this isn’t the first time a similar ordinance has been brought up, and the people didn’t want it then.
“There are a lot of people that said ‘we don’t want this.’ They didn’t want it then, and they don’t want it now. How else does the public convince the government of the people that that’s not what they want?”
Assembly member Bernier later made a motion to postpone the vote, but he was voted down. Instead, a motion was passed to postpone the ordinance but continue to the public hearing and at the next meeting on March 21.
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