A gravel industry spokesman this week pitched a plan to county commissioners in an attempt to head off the possible imposition of emergency interim zoning that could stop gravel development plans in the Belgrade doughnut area.
At a commission meeting Wednesday, Montana Contractor’s Association attorney Michael Kakuk spoke before planning staff, a state legislator and residents who are spearheading the emergency zoning effort.
Kakuk said he wanted to feel out the general mood of the room before suggesting regulations that would affect any new or expanding gravel pits in the area. He was quick to point out that his suggestions were preliminary and haven’t been approved by the board of the group he represents, but said something has to be done to smooth relations between gravel pit operators and neighboring residents.
“I want to lower the temperature so we can put these fires out,” he said.
On a local level, Kakuk proposed a co-operative approach between county officials and the gravel industry to write regulations for three gravel pit categories — rural, developing areas and “wet” pits. Each level, starting with rural, would incur more refined and in-depth conditions of operation.
Also, Kakuk said, the contractors association may want to have the ability to dig temporary pits in residential areas to obtain gravel for specific nearby projects, such as road work.
But in order for the agreement to work, the county has to be zoned, Kakuk said. The overlay rules would allow present and future gravel pits to operate as they do presently.
In exchange for adhering to the conditions, residents would essentially give up their right to petition against open-cut mining, Kakuk said.
Also, to level the playing field, all new gravel pits in the area would follow the new regulations, Kakuk said Thursday.
“There is no way to do this without zoning,” he said. “If it’s all voluntary, we have a regulatory discrepancy here and the ones who are self-regulated are going to be under increased costs and burdens.”
If implemented, the plan would give local governments some oversight of gravel pits, which Kakuk said could ease the worries of anxious residents.
“Call it what you will, but it comes down to land use regulation,” he said. “And under Montana law, the only way to regulate land use, on this issue, is local government zoning.”
However, Kakuk said he is not in a position to promise anything to anyone. In essence, he wants to steer more oversight toward the county to address the issue beyond the capacity of state agencies.
“These are local issues,” he said. “Let’s solve them in a local way.”
After sleeping on the idea, commissioners said that overall they are receptive to the plan, but still have concerns.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Commissioner Bill Murdock said. “If he has (MCA) backing then it’s a step in the right direction.”
But until talks begin, the jury is still out regarding the proposed regulations.
“That remains to be seen with the gravel pit operators,” he said. “That’s what it will come down to.”
Murdock suggested there could be a limited “trial period.” If operators prove they “can be good neighbors” during that time, mining could move forward.
Commissioners imposed similar measures on a gravel pit in the Hebgen Lake area after residents rose up with complaints.
“If they haven’t been in compliance in that (time period) then they don’t get renewed,” he said.
Commissioner Steve White said he was interested in the idea but the question of overlaying the county with a gravel pit regulation could raise hackles all over again.
“There would be debate where you are going to put these overlays,” he said. “You would essentially be putting them in areas where those neighbors would oppose even if there aren’t any pits being planned. Now all of sudden they are living next to an area (zoned) for gravel pits.”
Commissioner Joe Skinner said he wasn’t sure of his position on te idea, but said the gravel pit issue is gumming up efforts to enact countywide zoning for the purpose of controlling density.
“Where I get caught in the middle is this gravel pit issue is not helping the matter,” he said. “We are going down this path of county-wide zoning, promising people that we weren’t going to regulate uses. Now this huge use discussion has come up in the middle of it. It’s very difficult to try to mesh the two together in my mind.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to regulate gravel in a couple small parts of the county and not do it countywide.”