June 25, 2008

County Weighs Zoning North of Lolo

By Moy, Chelsi

The Missoula Board of County Commissioners is holding an emergency meeting Friday afternoon to discuss interim zoning on an area along U.S. Highway 93 north of Lolo where a controversial gravel pit is proposed. The commissioners denied the same request this past winter when approached by nearby residents concerned about dust, the environmental impacts and traffic safety. Interim zoning would essentially halt the project by JTL Group Inc. because it would no longer comply with county zoning regulations. Back then, the commissioners told the neighbors not to worry, the state would address their concerns.

Now, that may no longer be true.

Recently, six sand and gravel companies in three counties have turned to the courts, asking judges to order the Department of Environmental Quality to issue their open-cut gravel and mining permits because they argue the agency has taken too long.

Four of those cases stem from projects located in Gallatin County. Earlier this month, the judges in those cases ordered the state to issue the permits without any public comment or environmental review. The state has appealed three of those decisions.

JTL is one of those six companies, along with Helena Sand & Gravel in Lewis and Clark County. Court hearings in those cases are set for Monday, beginning at 1:30 p.m. in Helena.

The Missoula County commissioners fear that the concerns residents voiced earlier this year won't be addressed if the judge rules in favor of JTL, especially regarding access to the highway. The county wants to ensure that the appropriate highway studies and improvements are required before the project gets under way.

Zoning is the county's only tool. In order to have some bearing on Monday's court hearing, the commissioners called for an emergency meeting at 2 p.m. Friday in Missoula City Council Chambers on the possibility of interim zoning north of Lolo.

"We're concerned that if the (state) review doesn't go forward, there could be considerable problems with traffic access," said Commissioner Larry Anderson. "This would constitute an emergency in our view."

The longer the state takes to issue these permits, especially with projects closer to urban centers, the more time neighbors have to organize in opposition, said Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contactors Association. It leaves these companies with no choice but to turn to the courts.

"That's the unfortunate predicament that has evolved," he said. "A contactor cannot afford to have the permit application sitting in a pile on someone's desk at DEQ."

There are eight pending open-cut mining and gravel permits in Missoula County. Statewide, there are about 62 "active" project applications awaiting permits.

Hegreberg doesn't foresee dozens of gravel companies taking the judicial route. Some are private landowners who would like to keep the option of mining available in the future, or companies that are not under public scrutiny or time constraints, he said.

"They've got little incentive to go to court and force the issue," he said.

JTL, however, secured a construction bid from the Montana Department of Transportation to repave the portion of Highway 93 between Lolo and Missoula.

"When they bid that project, they were counting on a permit from DEQ to process gravel and asphalt on site," Hegreberg said. "The costs of hauling from their Missoula plant (on Reserve Street) versus the Lolo site are extraordinary."

Unlike in Gallatin County, the state was nearing the end of the environmental analysis on the proposed pit at Lolo and conducted a lengthy public comment on the project. The conditions attached to the permit at the time of a ruling, if there is one, would likely remain intact if the judge ordered an immediate issuance, said Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for DEQ.

The area where the zoning is being considered Friday is north of Ridgeway Drive, and includes about two-thirds of an open meadow. The northern portion of the field is already zoned residential. Property owner Ken Allen intends to build condominiums there.

Deputy County Attorney Mike Sehestedt does not believe this is spot zoning because it's a large chunk of land and would be zoned in accordance with the growth plan, which is residential.

It is unlikely that interim zoning would last longer than one year, Sehestedt said. What would follow is either permanent zoning, or the zoning would lapse.

Copyright The Missoulian May 30, 2008

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