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Residents and gravel pit operators are unhappy with proposed changes to code

Renee Gross, KBBI News

When it comes to gravel pits on the Kenai Peninsula, there’s not much that property owners and pit operators can agree upon. But many are on the same page about one thing: they don’t like the changes that are being proposed to the current codes governing material sites.

Hans Bilben is stepping out on his deck in Anchor Point, which oversees acres of a forest and a nearby beach. He said he spends a lot of time out here and worries that a proposed gravel pit could change the view—a lot.

“I would say a rock crusher would be right about through that clearing down there,” he said.

Bilben said the fight against a permit to excavate nearly 30 acres of land near his home has been all consuming this past year. But he hasn’t just fought against this particular permit. He’s also tried to change the codes governing the future permits of gravel pits.

“We went to these meetings and made many, many proposals, and they were totally ignored,” he said.

These were meetings of a material site work group. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly established the group about a year and a half ago to update the codes regarding gravel pits and other material sites. The borough said its given out roughly 80 permits on the peninsula for such sites but hadn’t updated the codes for years.

The group came up with a list of recommendations this April, but Bilben said they were disappointing.

“We were hoping it would be a little bit more user-friendly toward neighborhoods,” he said. “They've made it very regressive.”

He noted that in the new recommendations, there could be some instances where there would be less space between property and gravel pits. That’s the opposite of what he wanted. 

Robert Ruffner is the chair of the work group and a member of the borough’s planning commission. He said increasing buffers to the point that some residents wanted was difficult.

“If we tried to put a half-a-mile buffer around every residential property that’s on the borough, there would be very little land available for extracting gravel which is critical to all of our infrastructure,” he said.  

The material site work group was made up of pit operators, residents, planning commission members and assembly members.  In Ruffner’s perspective, they didn’t make many large changes, they just tweaked the code a little bit.

“The reason that we really didn't make any major shifts is because, in order to do what would be considered significant in the eyes of a lot of people would require zoning powers specifically for material sites,” he said. “And I don't think anybody on the work group nor members of the assembly are ready to adopt zoning powers for that purpose.”

Still, he said in many instances under the new codes, there would be a little more distance between material sites and property. And there would be an even bigger buffer between material sites and schools and certain health care facilities. The group also recommended purchasing new technology to better measure sound impacts. But many pit operators and residents say the group should go back to the drawing board.

“What I would do is just scrap it,” said Emmitt Trimble.

Trimble is in the midst of trying to get a permit accepted for a gravel pit near Hans Bilben’s house. The new regulations wouldn’t apply to his permit, but he estimates if they did, it would significantly affect the amount of gravel he can dig:

“A million dollars that you can throw your hat on from where you're standing that you don't get,” he said. “You bought all of the property, but you can't use that million dollars worth of gravel. It's just got to sit there.”

The borough’s planning commission will take a look at Trimble’s permit application and hold a public hearing on the work group’s recommendations on June 24.  

Renee joined KBBI in 2017 as a general assignment reporter and host. Her work has appeared on such shows as Weekend Edition Saturday, The World, Marketplace and Studio 360. Renee previously interned as a reporter for KPCC in Los Angeles and as a producer for Stateside at Michigan Radio. Her work has earned her numerous press club awards. She holds an M.S. in journalism from the University of Southern California and a B.A. in women's studies from the University of Michigan.
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