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Behind the headlines

NOTE: These are the views of the Routt County planning department and they do not represent the views of the Routt County Planning Commission or the Board of County Commissioners, members of which have not reviewed these comments.

Q. What criteria does Routt County use to evaluate Special Use Permit applications for gravel pits?

A. The Routt County Master Plan and Zoning Resolution are the regulatory documents that govern all land-use development in Routt County. The Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan, Stagecoach Area Plan, Upper Elk Valley Community Plan and numerous other sub-area plans are incorporated as integral parts of the master plan. These documents provide the criteria for evaluating gravel pits.

The criteria include the mitigation of visual, traffic, wildlife and air and water quality impacts. They also require an examination of health and safety and land-use compatibility issues. With any type of application, these items have to be carefully balanced to ensure that the impacts of the proposed development are mitigated to the greatest extent possible while still respecting the landowner’s property rights. In the case of a gravel pit it may be possible to find a remote site that has little or no visual impact. However, that has to be weighed against the safety, noise, dust and road maintenance impacts created by increasing the number of trucks on county roads that may not be designed for that type of traffic.

Q. There are about 4.2 million tons of gravel permitted to be mined locally. Is it possible to mine this gravel in the Yampa Valley with a low degree of visual impact?

A. The degree of visual impact is defined by how many people see it and how often. A gravel pit with a low degree of visual impact is one that is not visible to very many people and is not seen very frequently. That is particularly difficult to achieve with gravel pits because the material that is being mined is sand and gravel deposited by rivers.

These deposits are primarily located on the floor of the Yampa and Elk river valleys.

These same broad valley floors where sand and gravel are located are also the most desirable and easiest places to live.

Visual mitigation usually consists of careful site selection and landscaping to screen gravel pits from residences or drivers on a road that is at the same elevation as the pit.

However, it is very difficult to screen any large-scale land-use activity from viewpoints that are on the surrounding hillsides and ridges. At the current rate of sales for roadbase, asphalt and concrete, the 4.2 million tons of material would be depleted within five years.

Q. In past meetings, planning commissioners have noted that visual impacts of future pits would be less than longtime operated pits. What will be the difference in the design of future pits?

A. Each proposal has site-specific issues that affect visual impact. The first priority is to determine what viewpoints are important that might be affected. Views from entry corridors to the growth centers in Routt County are given priority by the County Master Plan. A good example is U.S. 40 outside Steamboat Springs. Design features might include a combination of increased setbacks from roads, improved landscaping, reduction in allowable disturbance and faster reclamation. Basically, the idea is smaller, better-looking, more efficient operations with increased buffers from key view corridors.

Q. Does the county consider reclaimed gravel pits as open space?

A. Reclaimed gravel pits are sometimes purchased or donated for open space. Landowners are encouraged by the county to preserve open space especially in areas undergoing intense development pressure. Routt County has undertaken a number of initiatives to preserve open space including adoption of the Routt County Open Lands Plan, Land Preservation Subdivisions that provide an alternative to sprawling 35-acre developments, open space grants and, most importantly, the Purchase of Development Rights program. Under the PDR program the taxpayers of Routt County voted to increase the property taxes they pay to preserve open space. Unless these areas are dedicated to the public, they remain in private ownership. However, their physical appearance is that of open space because they are usually reclaimed as lakes, ponds or grazing land. Therefore, even if they are not dedicated or purchased as open space, the visual qualities of reclaimed lands retain the open space character of the Agriculture/Forestry zoning district.

Q. Is Routt County unique in terms of its need for gravel and are county officials considering how other counties are dealing with the issue?

A. Routt County is definitely not unique in terms of its need for gravel. Routt County planning staff maintains contact with other county planning departments and has copies of permits and related information from areas ranging from Larimer to Eagle counties, including a copy of the permit for the new pit north of Silverthorne on Colorado 9.

Sand and Gravel Mining in Colorado Rivers and Riparian Areas, a report prepared by the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council (WSERC) in September 2000, was submitted to the county by Stuart Orzach of the Yampa Valley Alliance. The report notes “the aggregates industry is booming in Colorado” and “the industry’s boom is a direct consequence of Colorado’s growing population and economy.” Routt County has taken a proactive approach to regulating mineral extraction in all forms. Maps showing the location of mineral resources including coal, oil and gas, and sand and gravel, were included in the original master plan adopted in 1980. The Minerals sections of both the Master Plan and Zoning Resolution were substantially upgraded in the early 1990s. In fact, the WSERC report notes “Routt County’s criteria are much more specific” than other counties in the state.

While we are justifiably proud of what has been accomplished Routt County is in the process of updating both the Master Plan and the Zoning Resolution including the mineral extraction sections of each. County Planning staff is also finishing work on a set of Gravel Pit Evaluation Guidelines that are designed to provide objective ways to measure visual impact, cumulative impact and land-use compatibility. These guidelines have been developed through a year-long collaborative process involving citizens and environmental groups, the city of Steamboat Springs, Colorado Division of Wildlife and mining industry representatives.

Q. It has been said that gravel needs in the valley are directly related to growth here and that gravel pits have to be close to the projects they serve. Is it possible for the county to predict where the growth will happen in the future and then approve gravel pit locations accordingly?

A. Growth may or may not continue due to a variety of factors, most of which are related to the economy, lifestyle choices and demographics that are outside county control. If the growth does continue, it would be reasonable to expect it to follow existing trends.

One such trend is the conversion of large agricultural tracts into 35-acre residential developments.

Due to Colorado state law, counties have little or no jurisdiction over this type of development. This trend is particularly noticeable in the area south of Steamboat Springs where developments like Catamount, Sydney Peak Ranch, Storm Mountain Ranch, Mystic Ridge, Big Valley Ranch and Timbers Preserve have created a large number of roads and homesites, many of which have not yet been built.

Another prominent trend is infill development within the Steamboat Springs city limits. There remain significant areas available for development around the base of the ski area, Central Park Plaza and in the Hilltop Connector area. The West of Steamboat Springs Area is also experiencing growth with the recent Heritage Park and Silver Spur subdivisions. The area between the existing city limits and Steamboat II has been designated by the city and county as an appropriate area for new affordable residential development.

Because we currently have six gravel mines west and two south of the primary development areas in and around Steamboat Springs, developers, builders and landowners have a choice of where their materials come from, based upon product needs and price.

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