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West Valley Board denounces plan for asphalt plant

by Colin Gaiser
Daily Inter Lake | May 23, 2020 1:00 AM

In the face of heated public opposition, the West Valley Land Use Advisory Board voted unanimously Thursday evening to recommend denying a modification to a conditional-use permit that would allow for asphalt production at a gravel pit in West Valley.

The decision on whether to approve or deny is now left to the Flathead County Board of Adjustment, which will meet remotely June 2. The Board delayed a decision May 5 to allow for further discussion by the West Valley Board.

The controversial gravel pit is operated by Schellinger Construction and located at 3427 Farm to Market Road near the intersection of Farm to Market and Church Drive. The original conditional-use permit was approved in 2005, before the definition of “gravel extraction” was expanded in 2010 to include asphalt and concrete batch plants after a long legal battle.

Section 16 Family Limited Partnership is listed as the property owner.

The official applicant, Rob Koelzer, said there was “no intention for a concrete batch plant as of right now,” though the modification of the conditional-use permit would leave the possibility open.

After over an hour-and-a-half of discussion with representatives from Schellinger Construction and Mark Mussman, Flathead County Planning Director, a long line of community members stepped to the podium to outline their grievances.

Many pointed out that the area is zoned for residential and agricultural uses. Running an asphalt or concrete batch plant 12 months out of the year would be considered a “heavy industrial use,” said John Schwarz, who owns a large property across from the gravel plant.

He also said the traffic analysis in the planning office’s staff report was insufficient, and said there would be a “dramatically greater” number of truck trips once an asphalt plant began operating.

Many speakers expressed fears over the increase in truck traffic, especially with the pit’s location just a few miles north of West Valley School, and were concerned trucks would now be hauling materials more toxic or flammable than ordinary gravel.

Jeff Peterman, who lives near the pit, said he had “seen and participated in” accidents at or near the intersection of Farm to Market and Church, including a gravel truck turned over on Church Drive.

“If that would’ve been an oil tanker I have no idea how we would have dealt with that,” he said.

“One of the reasons we moved there [West Valley] is because it’s zoned primarily residential and agricultural,” Peterman said, and echoed many residents’ concerns over the plant’s impact on their property values. He said the fumes from an asphalt plant would have the most negative impact on nearby properties.

In addition to the odors, residents were concerned about the increased fire hazard from an asphalt or concrete plant due to the oil stored onsite.

Many also said that Schellinger Construction had been operating beyond the hours of operation they were permitted. Resident Angie Clark said “they have not been a good neighbor” and were consistently in operation before 7 a.m., the time they are allowed to start operating.

“How are we to trust them at all when we are not abiding by their laws?” Clark added. She said the county planning office has failed to provide proper oversight, echoing others’ frustrations with the county.

One resident said the application was “totally insufficient” and the planning office’s staff report was “sophomoric.”

“The unintended consequences of projects like this have to be looked at,” he added.

The public also had concerns over degradation of local aquifers, toxic air pollutants, dust and impacts to local wildlife, among others.

The only speaker not in opposition was Linda Tutvedt, managing partner of Section 16, who stood up only to thank the board and the Flathead County planning staff.

The board had to intervene at multiple times following the closure of the public comment period, as some members of the public spoke out of turn to confront Mussman and representatives of Schellinger.

Board member Bruce Colburn was unsatisfied with the staff report, telling Mussman “as we got further into the details about truck traffic and noise and pollution and contamination, the use of the word ‘appears to be okay’ [in the report] made your argument even weaker, in my opinion.”

Colburn wanted a more detailed analysis and found the process “weak.”

Board member Steven Alejandro wanted more studies conducted, like a new study on water quality and risks to local aquifers, and more discussion with organizations like the West Valley Fire Department.

None of the four board members hesitated when voting on their recommendation to deny the permit, after nearly three-and-a-half hours of discussion.

The May 5 Board of Adjustment meeting will be conducted via teleconference. Visit flathead.mt.gov/planning_zoning/events.php for information on how to access the meeting.

Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at cgaiser@dailyinterlake.com