The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Material Site Work Group has been reviewing codes regulating gravel pits and other resource development for roughly a year now. The work group will eventually provide recommendations on how the borough’s planning commission handles the permitting process for such operations.
Work group members say it’s unlikely they will recommend that the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly give the planning commission the ability to outright deny permits. But during a meeting Wednesday, some members discussed creating new codes that are more friendly to residential areas.
The borough's current code has led to a contentious debate in rural neighborhoods near Anchor Point where gravel pits have sprouted up near homes.
Currently, the borough’s planning commission does not have the authority to deny a permit for a gravel pit or other resource extraction as long as it fits certain criteria surrounding noise, the visibility of the site and basic buffer zones among other standards.
“When an applicant comes in and applies to develop a gravel pit, there's a notification that goes to the surrounding land owners and often times those surrounding landowners will come to the borough with the expectation that if they really rally the troops, that the planning commission may say no to a permit,” said work group chair Robert Ruffner. “And I don't think that the borough has done a particularly good job of letting people know when those notices come out, that the planning commission doesn't have the authority to say no.”
But during its past few meetings, Ruffner asked the group if there are certain scenarios that would warrant an outright denial. For example: if a gravel pit is near a school or a senior living home.
Ruffner said the work group doesn’t want the process to be arbitrary.
“So the working group decided that they would rather see criteria laid out so that both a potential developer and neighborhoods would know what those criteria are, but that there shouldn't be a scenario where the planning commission could use some discretionary criteria to outright deny a gravel pit,” he said.
The work group has not come to a formal consensus on any potential changes to the planning commission’s powers during the permitting process. Members such as Larry Smith are opposed to anything that will increase the planning commission’s ability to deny a permit.
“Honestly, I don't want to see anything changed from the way it is now,” Smith said. “I don't want anybody to have any illusions about my representation on this board. I represent the gravel pits.”
However, some members want to change the criteria for approving gravel pits. During the meeting on Wednesday, member Robin Davis borrowed language from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s code and suggested the borough require a material site to preserve character of the surrounding area, among other changes.
“This will get us started on that direction,” he said. “If this doesn't work for y'all, what will you put in here to protect residences, residential areas? What would you do?”
Davis plans to put some of his suggestions up for a vote in the near future. Group member Brent Johnson suggested modifying codes based on the number of homes in an area.
“We could look at residential areas and find the density of homes per acre or per whatever and when we are satisfied that a typical area that has yea much density shouldn't have a gravel pit within yea distance of it, then I think that that's an aspect that everybody could look at, those measurements, and say ok, that's not capricious, it’s a standard thing,” he said. “When this many people move into area, you can’t have a gravel pit there.”
While it’s unclear when the work group will agree on what, if any, changes will be made to the borough’s permitting criteria for gravel pits, it has agreed on other changes such as the hours of operation for gravel pits.
“So crushing rocks, shaking them and sorting them: those types of activities are particularly noisy and the current code right now says that you could do that between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. and we voted to make a recommendation to the planning commission and the assembly that we think those hours should be reduced to 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with the ability for a material side operator to request an exception to that,” Ruffner said.
The group has already voted on roughly 15 general recommendations it plans to give to the assembly – mostly minor administrative changes.
Ruffner says they still have about 15 recommendations to work through. The group’s next meeting will be on Jan. 16.