Proposed gravel operation meets with opposition

As spring arrives, Jerry Feil intends to initiate a multi-year gravel processing operation on land he owns in the Blanco Basin south of Pagosa Springs. A few of his neighbors, though, aren’t so sure.

Feil has apparently contracted with Four Corners Materials of Durango (FCM), a subsidiary of Oldcastle Southwest Group, Inc., to process and remove an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel from his 47 acres over the next two or three years. However, according to a “facts” sheet containing information supposedly provided by Feil, “FCM has signed a five-year land lease, with an option for five additional years.”

In a recent phone interview, Feil said the aggregate he hopes to remove from his land consists of “tailings” temporarily stockpiled on a portion of his property, when the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) constructed a water diversion tunnel on adjacent land. Feil indicated that the USBR held a “temporary easement” allowing it to store the material there, for later removal.

The facts sheet — provided to The SUN by a neighboring group opposing the project— adds that Feil has also applied for a three-year gravel removal permit on the USBR land, in order to move additional material to his property for processing. That product, now estimated at 8,000 to 10,000 cubic yards, is produced annually, as the bureau dredges a small reservoir near the diversion tunnel. In recent years, the material has been available (by permit) to the U.S. Forest Service, Archuleta County, local contractors and private citizens.

During the same interview, Feil suggested his proposed operation wasn’t subject to state or federal permits, but he didn’t know whether the county would require one.

“We checked it out and the state says no mining permits are required,” he said. “A county permit may be required, but the attorneys are working on that.”

In fact, because FCM will only remove stored aggregate from another source and not excavate virgin material, the project isn’t subject to mining permits. However, Archuleta County Senior Planner Cindy Schultz told The SUN that, “the county has told them they will need a permit.

“Because the material was already excavated, the state doesn’t require a permit,” Schultz said by phone. “However, we require one due to the nature of the operation. It’s a conditional use.”

Schultz explained that the state typically regulates mining activity, but not land use issues. The county, though, definitely regulates land use and, once project proponents submit a formal permit application, staff will analyze it in detail.

For instance, the county will look at how many heavy trucks will travel which public roads; what condition the roads are currently in and what damage will likely result; how might road safety be compromised; what the planned hours of operation are; and how the program will affect neighbors, the air and the environment. Staff will then require complete mitigation of all concerns, the costs of which will be born by FCM.

Following review and the imposition of conditions, the matter will go before the county planning commission, then on to the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) for final approval. All meetings are open to public comment, and the process, from application to final approval, could take several months.

Schultz explained that the county assesses “sand and gravel” permit fees, based on the nature of the project. Minor work, such as a simple driveway improvement, are subject to a $1,500 fee, while major undertakings such as the one Feil has planned, are inclined to a $3,500 charge. The non-refundable fee is required up front.

Feil’s property fronts the Blanco River near the Blanco Basin Road, approximately eight miles up from U.S. 84. To remove materials from the land in question, FCM trucks will have to traverse Blue Mountain Place, Nofishum Place and the Blanco Basin Road. All are gravel routes passing through the bordering Blue Mountain Ranches subdivision, where many project opponents live or own property.

According to Jeff Robbins, a Durango attorney representing the opposition, several other landowners living outside of Blue Mountain Ranches — but along the Blanco Basin Road — also oppose Feil’s plan.

“I was hired by a group of landowners on the Blanco Basin Road in early December,” Robbins said in a recent phone interview. “They’re not just disgruntled Blue Mountain Ranches people.”

Robbins insists a county permit is required for such a scheme as Feil’s, but doubts approval is possible.

“A county permit is indeed needed,” he offered. “I placed Four Corners and the owner on notice, but haven’t received a response, so far. I’m not sure they would qualify, because the code requires the use to be compatible with adjacent uses.

“We have grave concerns about the traffic with this use, Robbins continued. The road can’t accommodate it, and we’re concerned about dust and sediment getting into the stream.

“Basically, we don’t believe the operation could qualify for a permit, because it cannot meet county permit requirements.”

If the project moves forward as Feil and FCM plan, between 3,000 and 5,000 truckloads of sand and gravel could traverse local roads every work season (during the spring, summer and fall) for the next two or three years. By comparison, the county moved 400 truckloads of rock from the USBR site to Mill Creek Road, last summer.

According to the facts sheet, 60 to 120 trucks would travel the Blanco Basin Road every weekday from May to October. That equates to between seven and 15 trucks per hour.

To date, neither Feil or FCM have applied for a county permit to run the rock-crushing and gravel-processing operation and, by press time, phone calls to FCM spokesman Peter Kearl had not been returned. Nevertheless, a “coordinating group” of neighboring full-time residents has formed to interface with attorney Robbins, with sincere hope of stopping the project, should proponents ultimately seek a permit.

chuck@pagosasun.com