To the acclaim of more than 100 citizens who turned out for a public hearing Tuesday night, the Belgrade City Council unanimously approved interim zoning regulations to prevent a proposed gravel pit and asphalt plant from being developed at the northwest edge of the city.
“What happened tonight was consistent with the vision for the future of Belgrade outlined in the city’s Growth Policy,” said Ted Barkley, Belgrade city manager, minutes after the council’s vote.
Chris Hildebrandt, who testified in favor of the interim zoning as spokesman for Belgraders Against Weaver Pit and president of the Mission Park Homeowners Association, echoed Barkley’s sentiments. He said a gravel mine on the approximately 200-acre site located on Weaver Road near Collins Road would have been inconsistent with the Growth Policy adopted by the city in January.
At the outset of the hearing, Belgrade’s Planning Director Jason Karp said the city spent much of last year working with consultants to create the policy, which outlines projected land use and future projects in and near the city for the next few decades. An effort to follow through with a comprehensive zoning code is underway, he said, but has been delayed somewhat due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Karp said that though the property being considered by Riverside Contracting for a gravel mining operation is not currently in the city limits, it does fall within a mile of the city’s northwest boundary, meaning the city — by state statute — has the authority to impose emergency interim zoning there. He said the area is identified in the Growth Policy as an area for future residential growth, which is an appropriate use because of existing nearby neighborhoods and the new elementary school currently under construction about 1,900 feet from the proposed gravel pit.
“That was a concern expressed by Superintendent (Godfrey) Saunders at the last public meeting,” Karp said.
The school district’s concerns were aired again later in the evening by school board Chair Mary Ellen Fitzgerald and Vice Chair Dee Batey, both of whom urged the council to adopt the interim residential zoning.
On behalf of the school board, Batey said, “We chose that site with the idea homes would be in around it. A gravel pit was not in our mind.”
Appealing to the council’s fiscal responsibilities, Batey added the gravel pit might bring in significant tax revenue in the short term, but residential development there would generate consistent revenues well into the future.
Most of the two dozen or so citizens who addressed the council live outside the city limits near the proposed site. Like the school board members, they expressed worries over the safety of the children who will attend the new school, in addition to a host of concerns over potential air and water pollution, noise, traffic, effects on wildlife, and decreased property values. A handful of others said Belgrade as a whole would suffer negative consequences because of the odors and dust clouds wafting from the asphalt plant and pit, prompting visitors flying into the airport to escape by hightailing it out of town.
Two experts spoke on behalf of the Belgraders Against Weaver Pit, primarily about
environmental and health concerns. Another BAWP representative presented the council with a petition against the gravel pit signed by 674 people.
Nobody testified against the interim zoning proposal, including representatives of Riverside Contracting. Calls placed to Riverside and its legal counsel by the Belgrade News were not returned by press time on Wednesday.
Prior to voting, council members expressed their appreciation to the citizens who turned out to testify. Councilman Mike Meis said that while the council is bound to work within the law, he believed it had enough justification to pass the interim zoning to protect the health and welfare of the community.
“I’m in favor of putting in interim zoning,” added Councilman Jim Simon. “The location doesn’t fit.”
Meis said the council would have had a tougher time passing the emergency ordinance if the new Growth Policy weren’t in place. After the vote, Karp said it’s exciting to see the policy being put to use rather than gathering dust on a shelf, as sometimes happens with such documents.
The council’s decision was hailed with cheers and applause from the relieved spectators in the Belgrade High School auditorium, where the hearing was held so there would be enough room for recommended physical distancing.
“We’re thankful to the city for hearing our concerns and protecting our interests,” Hildebrandt said.