Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) As Missoula County ponders a zoning variance for a gravel pit near Lolo, neighbors are already preparing to appeal.

On Tuesday, the Carlton Protection Trust indicated it is prepared to appeal any Missoula County approval of expansion of the Hendricksen gravel pit along Old Highway 93 between Lolo and Florence. The neighbors of the pit formed the nonprofit Carlton Protection Trust in March to oppose more growth of the pit.

“It’s been a problem all along, but the only solution that we seem to be heading toward is an expansion,” said Stéphane Fort, Carlton Protection Trust president.

The neighbors were reacting to a county meeting held Monday where the commissioners and staff went over a number of possible conditions they could require if they approve the expansion requested by Western Materials LLC, which has owned the gravel pit since 2020.

They discussed requiring the mining to end and be reclaimed by particular dates, in addition to specifying berm heights, gravel storage, and preservation of a wildlife corridor, among other conditions. The county could also seek a reclamation bond above and beyond what the Montana Department of Environmental Quality requires.

The county commissioners didn’t say whether they’d approve the expansion. But Fort said Monday’s discussion gave the appearance that the commissioners were leaning in that direction. It’s expected that the Missoula County Planning and Zoning Commission will announce its recommendation during its Thursday meeting. That would then be approved by the Board of Commissioners, who sit on the Planning and Zoning commission.

“Our response (if the variance is approved) will be to appeal the decision,” Fort said. “We stand an even better chance of prevailing in front of the judge than in front of the county, because the judge will look at all the elements and will not ignore any of them. The whole picture with all the details we brought forth are a lot more compelling than what the applicant is trying to convey. But I have no doubt that if it is denied, Western will appeal also. So it is headed to court.”

The Missoula Current tried to contact Western Materials president John Kappes but his voicemail box was full. The Missoula Current also sent a message to Western Materials for comment but received no response by the end of business Tuesday.

In October, Western Materials/Western Extraction applied for a variance to expand its existing 80-acre gravel operation onto the adjacent Leibenguth property - three 20-acre lots and two 5-acre lots to the west - for a total of 150 acres. The variance is needed because in 1976, the area where the gravel pit operates was zoned by a citizen initiative as low-density residential with no nonconforming industrial uses.

This year, the Missoula County Planning and Zoning Commission has had two public meetings and visited the gravel pit site. During the most recent meeting on April 4, Carlton Protection Trust attorney Graham Coppes revealed that no industrial gravel pit existed at the time the area was zoned, so it couldn't have been “grandfathered in” as was assumed. In 1993, landowner Stan Hendrickson received the first open-pit mining permit for a 3-acre pit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, after he attested incorrectly that the gravel pit wasn’t in a zoned area.

Coppes and his team uncovered evidence showing that, since 1993, the gravel pit has incrementally expanded without county approval. The county finally discovered the problem in 2008 when Hendricksen needed county approval to get a new DEQ permit after he let the old one lapse.

That’s when Missoula County deputy attorney Mike Sehestedt wrote a memorandum acknowledging the zoning problem but recommending that Hendrickson be granted a variance anyway since the DEQ permit was set to expire in 2020. Sehestedt and the county expected that operations would cease then. But in 2020, Western Materials took over and applied for an amendment to the DEQ permit, listing them as the new operator and extending the expiration date until 2045.
Fort said the zoning should have protected the neighborhood, but the county continues to approve the gravel pit "because it's already there."

“The main problem this neighborhood has with this operation is its potential illegality with regard to zoning. This still hasn’t been addressed,” Fort said. “Commissioner Strohmaier is clearly trying to deflect (the county’s) responsibility in enforcing their own laws to the DEQ, saying the DEQ didn’t enforce a reclamation date. However, we have a case here where the county themselves never enforced their own recommendation in 2020 when this operation should have shut down. The letter of the county attorney proves that the legal status back then was already a huge problem.”

If the county doesn’t approve the expansion, Western Materials has estimated that it still has at least another 20 years worth of material to mine from its 80-acre pit.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at