A 120-acre pasture at the corner of Highline Road and Morning Mist Road in the Churchill area could grow something a little different in the near future.
The field is in the starting gates of becoming a gravel pit, according to Montana Department of Environmental Quality. If approved, a 30-acre mining area would contain two pits — one 20 acres and the other 10 acres — both up to 50 feet deep. The entire project could produce 1.7 million cubic yards of gravel.
The pasture was purchased by Matt Nistler from Jacob and Delores Feddes, according to DEQ documents. Nistler submitted the open-cut permit application March 29.
Nistler, along with DEQ officials, neighbors and irrigators, met June 27 to discuss the proposal and air concerns, DEQ reclamation specialist Jo Stephen said. Information gathered during the initial meeting will be used to formally move the application along.
“You can think of these plans of operations as a draft,” she said. “We’ll be getting more information and compile a draft environmental assessment which will be available to the public when the studies are complete.”
One of the main concerns of neighbors lies with agricultural use in the area, according to a spokesman for the Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators. Two of the oldest irrigation ditches in the Gallatin Valley — the Lewis Ditch and the Moreland Canal — flow through the site.
According to DEQ documents, the ground water table is estimated to be from 15 to 43 feet from the surface, and that has irrigators concerned, AGAI Director Walt Sales said. Water users want to ensure that the ditches, and the water they carry, will not be affected when machinery punches into the water table.
“Anytime you open up a pond like that, there is going to be some (water) loss,” Sales said. “The doctrine of prior appropriation must be followed.”
Along with potential water-loss woes, irrigators want proper crossings installed over the ditches, maintenance easements and assurances about water quality, Sales said.
Neighbors are also concerned about everything from well levels, property resale values and a host of environmental worries.
Al Wiersma lives directly across the road from the proposed site. His main concern is his drinking water from a well with a static level of 30 feet. He also spoke about the value of his property.
“It won’t be the most salable place being right across from a gravel pit,” he said.
In a letter to DEQ officials, area resident Betty Conard wrote that the wildlife population would suffer if the pit is approved.
“It’s not likely that much of the wildlife will remain in the area if an open-cut mining and crushing operation is allowed to go in at this rural farming location,” she said.
But gravel pits are subjected to specific state laws, Stephen said. Only significant findings of environmental harm to water or air quality standards could stop the proposal.
Gravel pits are profitable, and most owners work with the state in any way possible to meet requirements.
“We have rarely rejected a permit,” Stephen said.
However, state law requires open gravel pits to berm the area to reduce noise and light, she said. The pit would run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“We don’t have a regulation that deals with unsightliness or noise,” she said.
And because the area is unzoned, Gallatin County officials’ hands are tied, County Commissioner Bill Murdock said. If the area was zoned, commissioners could govern hours of operation, lighting and other issues.
“If it’s in a zoning district we can have a conditional-use-permit hearing, but this isn’t zoned,” he said. “The county has absolutely no hook.”
At the moment, the Gallatin County Planning Department is holding monthly meetings with Churchill-Amsterdam residents to lay the ground work for a neighborhood plan, Planning Director Greg Sullivan said.
Such a plan, along with possible zoning regulations, could help residents direct growth and operations like gravel pits in the future.
“They could talk about standards on how they would like mining resources to be developed,” he said. “They could pass a zoning document.”