The muttering and whispers grew in strength as one-by-one, the three Gallatin County commissioners told residents why they will not impose emergency interim zoning for specific gravel mines in Gallatin County.

County commissioners unanimously ruled against imposing interim zoning largely because they were not convinced an emergency existed. All three commissioners said the burden of proof was the responsibility of the opponents of the pits, and residents fell short on the issue.

Water quality and quantity concerns, along with increased traffic, were the big topics among Gallatin Gateway and Highline Road residents. However, commissioners said not enough hard facts were given to constitute an emergency.

Highline Road residents said open gravel pits filled with ground water will be a window for potential drinking water contamination, according to spokesperson Scott Dickie. Early spring flooding caused by frozen irrigation ditches could pick up contaminates and dump pollutants like chemical fertilizer and fecal matter from cattle and wildlife into the pits, poisoning the aquifer.

But neither Dickie nor the Montana Department of Environmental Quality could come up with documented evidence that such an occurrence had happened, commissioners said. In other words, “could” does not translate to “will” and until it does, commissioners said they had no choice.

“I’m looking for the opposite answer,” Commissioner Steve White said of Dickie’s concerns.

Commissioners deemed increased traffic concerns a moot point. Should the mining operations be zoned by the county, the need for gravel will not diminish and trucks will still be on the road, White said.

Also, commissioners said they were uncomfortable with pinpointing specific areas of the county to limit certain activity. Citing the growth policy, Commissioner Joe Skinner said decisions need to be made with the whole county in mind.

“This is the worst type of exclusionary zoning where you draw a circle around some gravel pits,” he said.

Commissioner Bill Murdock agreed.

“It’s like squeezing a balloon,” he said. “You’re just pushing it to other parts of the county. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it in the whole county.”

However, all three commissioners said gravel pits need to be watched more closely by the state to ensure they operate within DEQ standards. Commissioners charged the state is lacking enforcement.

“DEQ needs to be turned up,” White said. “Not just in our county, but I think other counties are suffering as well.”

Due to lax state laws, gravel pit issues can mushroom into room-filling, contentious battles, commissioners said. Lawmakers need to address issues such as public notification and hearings, length of operations and ground water concerns.

“These pits are supposed to be temporary, not permanent,” Murdock said.

“We need to get those hearings here in this building,” Skinner said.

Enter Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan, who lives near the two proposed Highline Road gravel pits. The gravel pit saga has struck a chord with the two-term state senator.

While Perry said he did not agree with the commission’s ruling, he plans to introduce a gravel mining reform bill in the 2009 legislative session to address what he describes as “a void in the law.”

But there are many issues at stake and crowning the list is one of the Republican Party’s steadfast planks — property rights.

“I think I’m turning some heads in the Republican Party to see that there are property rights for everybody,” he said. “We have to recognize that and represent everybody’s property rights and not just those of a few.”

Perry said state law placed the commission “in a bind” and it’s up to the state to put some teeth into regulations in the next session. Legislators gave local officials control over subdivision approval, and gravel pits should fall into the same category, he said.

“I won’t hesitate to do that because we can’t continue to have neighbors turn against neighbors,” Perry said. “We are elected to make the law and uphold the law. It’s our job to do the right things and make the hard decisions. We shouldn’t be forcing ... an emergency situation to crop up and no one can do anything about it.”

In the meantime, commissioners asked Gallatin County Planning Director Greg Sullivan to draw up a model set of regulations to be used in conditional use permits, which could be used by future zoning districts in the county to restrict gravel pits.

Basically, commissioners want a document to hand to DEQ and gravel-mine operators that contains operation guidelines and monitoring techniques, Murdock said Wednesday.

“There are no legal teeth at all to what we are doing,” he said. “We are not superseding state authority. We are asking. We are not telling.”