Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The proposed expansion of a gravel pit south of Lolo remains in limbo while the county has asked the pit owners and the neighbors to try to find a solution.

The continuing discussion of a Missoula County zoning variance for the Hendricksen gravel pit lasted three hours on Thursday but the county Planning and Zoning Commission still could not issue a decision.

While some commission members appeared to lean toward approving a variance to allow Western Materials to expand the 80-acre gravel pit into an adjacent 70-acre parcel that Western Materials has yet to buy, others had concerns about groundwater protection, reduced state requirements and whether the reclamation bond was sufficient.

“One of the concerns that I’ve heard today that resonates is state law keeps changing. What is true today may not be true tomorrow, and it doesn’t seem to be changing in a path of making it more restrictive,” said commission member Tyler Gernant. “I’m suggesting as part of this agreement - and I don’t know that Missoula County has the capacity to enforce such an agreement - but putting some sideboards on it that are enforceable independent of state law.”

Western Materials/Western Excavating owns the Hendricksen gravel pit, which operates in an area that has been zoned low-density residential since 1976. The first state open-pit permit was issued in 1993 to Stan Hendricksen, who attested to the county that the pit - then described as 5 acres - wasn’t in a zoned area.

Missoula County didn’t question the existence of the pit until 2008, when Hendricksen had to reapply for a state opencut permit. Missoula County deputy attorney Mike Sehestedt acknowledged that the pit had been operating illegally but the damage had already been done, and to be fair to Hendricksen, he recommended granting another compliance permit.

Western Materials bought the pit in 2020 and expanded the pit to its current size. The neighbors point to the zoning language which says any nonconforming use wasn’t supposed to increase. But now, Western Materials has the opportunity to buy the adjacent 70 acres of the Leibenguth property so it has come to the county to request a variance to make the pit larger.

County planner Jenny Dixon said the neighborhood has Part 1 zoning, an older type that allows variances of nonconforming uses. If it was Part 2 zoning, which came along later, the county would be less likely to approve a change, which would be called a special exception. Missoula County hasn’t allowed any special exceptions in areas zoned under Part 2, Dixon said.

Neighbors said this was unfair, especially since the pit shouldn’t have been considered zoning compliant back in 1993. Also, after Dixon said the county can’t always track the conditions required of applicants when variances are approved, the neighbors questioned whether Western Materials would follow through on its promises, especially since the permit is good until 2045 but can be extended indefinitely.

They were especially concerned after Western Materials president John Kappes refused to set an end date on the pit’s operation.

“The residents should not have to shoulder the burden of the collective missteps of government,” said neighbor Liz Heaney.

Western Materials is looking to expand its gravel pit south of Lolo. (Google Earth)
Western Materials is looking to expand its gravel pit south of Lolo. (Google Earth)

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said if the planning and zoning commission made a decision then the county commission would immediately follow with its decision, making it “all or none.” But after hearing testimony from the pit owners and the neighbors opposing the pit and a lengthy question and answer period, the commission decided to schedule another meeting in June, which will be the fourth meeting on the variance since the end of February.

In the meantime, the commission asked representatives of Western Materials and the Carlton Protection Trust, a nonprofit formed by the neighborhood next to the pit, to meet and see if they could come up with a compromise that would allow the pit to expand.

Commissioner Josh Slotnik said rejecting the variance meant the gravel pit would still operate for at least another 20 years, but the county could require some conditions if they approved the variance.

“What I was pushing on was additional mitigation measures that would address some of the deleterious consequences of gravel mining that Graham so articulately described. What I was hoping for was that the two parties could get together, agree on what those measures would be, so that we could actually make things better for neighbors now,” Slotnik said. “It seems like we can make things better for the neighbors by making a heavily conditioned yes.”

Carlton Protection Trust attorney Graham Coppes said rejecting the variance would “stop the bleeding,” and in the meantime, the Carlton Protection Trust, and likely several other Montanans that have suffered from reduced state oversight, will argue the negligent approval of suburban gravel pits in court.

“This is a public process where you guys have the power to not make this worse. And that’s the best thing you can do today,” Coppes said. “If (Western Materials) said we’ll be done in five years, I would advise my client that that is a good deal; we should drop our objection because in five years they’ll be done and that’s how long it will take us to litigate this thing anyway. But they won’t even agree to a date in the first place.”

Coppes asked for the commission’s follow-up meeting to be in six months to allow for a groundwater study and talks between the parties. Kappes objected to that, saying Western Materials would accept a groundwater study as part of the conditions. Part of his objection deals with the timing of Western Materials’ contract to buy the Leibenguth land, but Kappes said he couldn’t say when that date is.

The commission agreed to meet again in June although a date wasn’t set.

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