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Rock quarry ruling prompts zoning questions

Rock quarry ruling prompts zoning questions

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CHEYENNE — Colorado-based Asphalt Specialties expects to break ground on its 15-acre rock quarry operation in Granite Canon this summer, after the project’s future was determined by the Wyoming Supreme Court in a Feb. 1 ruling.

In October 2018, the project plan died as the result of a 2-2 tie vote in the Laramie County Planning Commission after numerous concerns were raised by residents. Asphalt Specialties then appealed that ruling in court because the site plan met all requirements for not-yet-zoned land in the county.

Had the land been zoned as agricultural-residential, as outlined in the county’s comprehensive plan, the outcome might have been different.

The ruling has raised the question of whether countywide zoning is something the Laramie County Board of Commissioners should consider, as well as concerns from Granite Canon residents about how their lives and land could be impacted by this project going forward.

Summing up the root of the issue, Commissioner Troy Thompson said, “When people move to the country, they want to be able to do whatever they want on their own land. And the problem in that lies where people say, ‘Hey listen, we don’t want government telling us what to do. But, my gosh, we don’t want a neighbor coming in and doing something that we don’t want them to do.’”

Looking forward, the plan is not required to go before the Laramie County Board of Commissioners or Planning Commission again, according to County Attorney Mark Voss, which means there isn’t much residents can do about the decision.

Asphalt Specialities is now in the process of securing necessary permits from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality with the hope of getting the 15-acre operation at Lone Tree Creek up and running by spring 2022, according to land development manager Steve Ward.

With the entire Asphalt Specialities property totaling 555 acres, Ward said the company will consider further mining expansion after they’ve had time to “determine its viability.” During the initial planning process in 2018, company representatives said the expansion could reach 100 acres.

The rock quarry, also called an open pit mine, will produce metamorphic granite, which Ward said is used in all types of construction, including asphalt and concrete. He said the company expects to hire five to 10 employees locally as heavy equipment operators, as well as some support staff.

As for lessening the impact on the surrounding area, Ward said in an email, “We will be implementing all of the steps and processes that were discussed in the previous public meetings, and adhere and follow all state and federal regulations that govern these activities. Our goal, and the design of the project, has always been to be nearly invisible to our neighbors, with the exception of a few more trucks on Harriman Road.”

Those efforts include dumping 6,000 gallons of water each day to mitigate risks of silica dust spreading in the air, and installing modern equipment and a prominent ridge to mitigate the noise.

Still, some residents fear that won’t be enough.

The major concerns for landowners are: heavy truck traffic, with about 160 trucks going in and out of the area each day; the impact of silica dust on air and hay that ranchers in the area sell; the amount of water necessary for the daily operation; noise and vibrations from the mine; and the potential for how big the mine could become.

For the folks who live in Granite Canon, who have opposed this proposal from the beginning, the Supreme Court decision was “heartbreaking” and “devastating to hear,” said landowner Maeke Ermarth.

Maeke and her husband, Fritz, bought 130 acres of land north of Saddle Back Mountain and to the west of the proposed quarry more than 20 years ago. Since then, they’ve come to love the wildlife, community and way of life in Granite Canon.

But Maeke said they bought the land under the impression that the area would remain mostly unchanged from the country way of life. She said residents wanted a gas station and town shop at the most.

“I knew that most places have at least a five-year plan. So before we even bought out there, we checked the county records, just to make sure that this area was going to pretty much stay the way that it was,” said Maeke, who has decades of experience in real estate.

From conversations with county staff, Maeke said she was under the impression that the county’s comprehensive land-use plan would cover any zoning issues like this that could have come up and would keep the area mostly agricultural-residential.

During the appeal process, however, the Supreme Court found the opposite to be true. The ruling said the Planning Commission did not have the statutory authority to deny the rock quarry based on proposed zoning in the comprehensive plan.

“We rely on them to have valid information,” Maeke said. “I just think if that’s what the residents are being told, and if those are the plans that the localities have put into place, I think it’s up to us to decide if that is what holds water, instead of somebody who’s not even from our state coming in and telling us that our laws or our plans are worthless.”

Going forward, that Supreme Court decision leaves a choice for the county to make.

Some years ago, the county zoned the area around city limits in preparation for the urban sprawl that comes with city growth. But Thompson, the commissioner, said the general consensus from residents at that time was that the rest of the county should remain unzoned.

He said the crux of the thinking was, “We don’t want government interference; we want to be able to do what we want with our land.”

But after seeing the discussions on both this rock quarry project and the wind farm on Belvoir Ranch, Thompson said the commissioners will discuss if zoning the county is an idea they should carry forward.

According to data compiled by Voss, the county attorney, almost half the counties in Wyoming have full zoning throughout. Laramie County is one of a handful that has partial zoning in the county, and a petition from residents or direction from the commissioners is required to change that.

Either way, the motion calls for public hearings, and Thompson said the issue will be in the residents’ hands to decide.

“It comes down to, do you want government in your life, or do you not? And that’s a tough question,” Thompson said. “Essentially, that’s what the people Laramie County are going to have to answer.”

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