In a split vote Tuesday, the Gallatin County Commission agreed to extend emergency interim zoning for one more year, which means the county will continue governing new and expanding gravel pit operations throughout the Gallatin Valley.
Interim zoning was adopted May 7, 2008 after a public outcry over a number of new and expanding mines began cropping up in several places around the valley. County officials drafted a set of rules to mitigate environmental and operational concerns through a conditional use permitting process similar to subdivision review.
County Commissioner Steve White cast the lone vote against the measure, largely because the zoning ordinance applies to pits countywide and not to a specific area. Last year, White made a similar argument in voting against the measure.
"I just believe it’s an emergency in a localized area," he said.
But commissioners Bill Murdock and Joe Skinner said the rule needs to be in place to allow more time for several zoning efforts around the valley to address the issue.
Neighborhood planners in Gallatin Gateway, Four Corners and Amsterdam-Churchill, along with the Belgrade City-County Planning Board are drafting regulations that will address gravel mining in each area, county planner Warren Vaughan has said.
"This will give zoning districts a chance to get zoning in place to deal with gravel pits," Skinner said. "I think we need to give them a year to get those in place."
Murdock agreed, and said the county isn’t "out to get" gravel mines, but that interim zoning and the ensuing regulations are necessary to keep the peace between operators and neighbors.
Murdock pointed to a Highline Road mine, NOG, LLC., as an example for the county’s actions. NOG was one of three pits that received a state permit from a Helena district court last year, but so far its owners have circumvented local review, unlike other mines in the valley.
"That (company) is the poster child for why we needed to regulate these operators and impose a good neighbor policy," he said.
But Gateway-area gravel pit owner Dick Huttinga said the permitting process places a great expense on operators. Huttinga sits on the Gravel Pit Task Force, a committee charged to come up with long-term solutions to the issue.
While Huttinga voted in favor of a task force recommendation to extend interim zoning, he said he is not behind the ordinance. Huttinga went through the process in January and received a permit, but he said the ensuing restrictions cost him "thousands of dollars."
"I feel like I’ve been had," he said. "Our work as a task force is not done to solve these issues. To mine gravel, you have to make noise and put trucks on the road."
Task Force Chair Don Seifert said the extension would buy the committee more time to come up with some type of consensus solution among operators and neighbors.
"Have we found a silver bullet? No; but we’re probably onto a bronze bullet," he said.
All three commissioners expressed dismay over a lack of a solution from the 2009 Legislature. Local legislators addressed the task force with promises to draft new laws similar to the county’s efforts, but little came from those promises, commissioners said.
The lack of a concise law is "more of an argument that we do need to extend this," Skinner said. "It’s not as apparent as it was a year ago, but if we do nothing then we’re right back to the same situation we were a year ago."
The county’s interim regulations will be in effect until May 7, 2010. The task force has until Sept. 1 to produce a written report of its findings and recommendations.