Saturday, July 3, 2010

Grand Islanders raise rock quarry concerns

of the News-Register

Much of the testimony against Baker Rock's proposal to mine gravel on Grand Island spoke to the power of the Willamette River: the power to flood, to shift, to surprise.
But that Baker Rock proposal has shown a power of it's own; to unite, to light a fire of opposition.
Members of the Grand island, Dayton, and Unionvale communities met Wednesday at the Unionvale Countryside Church to discuss the possibility of a gravel quarry on the Island and what that could mean for their farms.
The event was organized by farmer Sam Sweeney, a member of the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District; Ron Schindler, a Grand Island organic farmer; and Kris Bledsoe, Grand Island resident and chair of the Yamhill Basin Council.
More than 40 people, who ranged from seasoned old-timers to Casey and Katie Culla's son, Rusty, about 6 months old, to everyone in between. Politicians from both sides of the aisle were represented and Jim Johnson came from the state Department of Agriculture to discuss the issues surrounding gravel mines on farmland.
Citizens concerns varied but touched on common issues. Many worried about traffic. They said gravel trucks would clog the narrow Island roads and damage the already-worn bridge that connect the Island with the rest of Yamhill County.
Island residents said they had always considered their community a safe place for children to play and people to walk, but intense quarry traffic would jeopardize that peace. They said the narrow bridges particularly worried them.
Baker Rock had proposed putting up "narrow bridge" signs, which complies with the Oregon law, but most residents said that wouldn't be enough to eliminate safety hazards.
Water also raised concerns.Some people said the mining operations could draw down the groundwater table that provides the well water.Others worried mining could exacerbate the prevalent flooding on the Island.
Baker Rock hired Colorado geomorphologist Chris Lidstone,who testified at the May and June Planning Commission meetings and said neither groundwater levels or flooding patterns would be affected.He said the mine was designed to work with the existing water behavior,not change it.
But the most overwhelming concern was the cumulative impact an approval of the application could create.Another quarry,owned by Bernert Towing,was approved on the Island in 2004,and citizens worried that the entire Island would systematically be taken over by quarries.Gravel deposits likely exist under the entire land mass.
Johnson,who has worked in land use planning for 30 years said the number od acres of farmland in the Willamette valley shrinks every year.He said gravel quarries have a lagal advantage over other uses when it comes to taking a plot of farmland.
Most applicants seeking to rezone cultivated Exclusive Farm Use tracts need to justify an exception to Goal Three,the farmland protection goal in Oregon land use guidelines.And Goal Three exceptions are hard to come by.
But that won't be the case here,as mining fulfills another of Oregon's land use planning goals-Goal Five_which encourages development of mineral and aggregate resources.
However,Johnson told the crowd to keep fighting.He cited a 2003 case in Lane County in which the Lane County commissioners denied a gravel quarry based on it's potential negative impacts to farming.
Lane county Assistant County Counsel Stephen Vorhes said the farmers in that case were very organized.He said they brought in experts,economists from the University of Oregon and two lawyers to argue the case.
Vorhes said the expert testimony ultimately swayed the Lane County commission.
Johnson encouraged the crowd emphatically."You can win this," he said.He said the land use process is as much political as legal.
Bledsoe said it was "probably guaranteed" commissioners Kathy George and Leslie Lewis would vote in favor of the quarry.She said both have received campaign donations from Meisel Rock Products.
Bledsoe lost campaign bids against both Lewis and George in 2008 and 2010,respectively.
But the rest of the political clout in the county seems to be falling on the side of the Grand Island farmers.
Rep. Jim Weidner,R-Yamhill,whose chief of staff attended Wednesday's meeting,said,"I'm concerned about the impact on available farm land,the property rights of existing operating farms in close proximity to the proposed mine location,and the strain placed upon the bridge by large truck traffic.
His oppnent,winemaker and Democrat Susan Sokol Blosser,attended the meeting and said she fully supports the farmer's cause.
"The cornucopia of diverse crops on the Island represent the future of our local agriculture and present an opportunity for new families to grow the fruits and vegetables that are the bounty of our county,"she said."There are other places that gravel pits can go.There is only one Grand Island."
County commissioner candidate Mary Starrett said she hasn't made up her mind about the application.She said she has talked to county Planning Director Mike Brandt and understands the facts of the case.She said she realizes the need for gravel,but also has serious concerns about the quarry's impacts on traffic,quality of life and the neighbors ability to farm.
Her opponent Mary Stern,could not comment because the application will soon appear in front of her,George and Lewis in a quasi-judicial capacity.
The next morning after digesting everything discussed at Wednesday's meeting,event organizer Sweeney summed it up this way:
"To see their Island carted away in large,noisy,belly dump trucks is a horrible thought.But also to realize that their families and livelihood will be altered forever by a consumptive industry only caring about it's bottom line is angering,frightening and devastating."

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