Monday, June 2, 2014

Whatcom County Wins GMA Case on Gravel Mine

This news is a bit old, but the Whatcom County did win one appeal in 2012 that sort of slipped by me until this past week. I am serving on the County Surface Mining Advisory Committee (SMAC) and the issue of the appeal was raised by one of the mining industry folks.

The short story is that Concrete Nor'west applied for a County Comprehensive Plan Amendment in late 2010 to have an area designated as a Mineral Resource Land (MRL). The site was located adjacent to an existing mine that was mostly mined out. The mine can not expand unless the adjacent area is designated a MRL. The Concrete Nor'west proposal met the criteria required for consideration to be designated MRL. The Planning Commission recommended approval and the matter came before the County Council. Initially the Council voted to include the MRL expansion in the 2011 amendments, but the issue was controversial in part because it posed a bit of conflict between two resources, forestry and mining. In addition, gravel mines tend to not be viewed positively by neighbors and are often very strongly opposed by locals and such was the case here.

Google earth image of Saxon Pit and proposed expansion area to the south of pit

The Saxon Pit was a rather out-of-the-way small very periodically mined site until the late 1990s when it changed hands and was mined out in the 2000s. In order for the mine to expand the area designated MRL must be granted first.

The Saxon Pit is located on a ridge between the South Fork Nooksack River on the east and the head waters area of the smallish Samish River on the west. The area is a mix of small farms, rural home sites and forest land.

The deposit consists of sand and gravel that was deposited on what is now the ridge during the last stages of the last glacial period. Some of the deposits is from ice wasting deposits as the ice melted away. Some of the deposit was from the South Fork Nooksack which now flows north, but during a period of time when the retreating continental ice was still to the north was blocked by glacial ice. At that time the river did a U turn and headed down what is now the Samish River Valley. Water flowing out from the retreating ice also flowed south through Samish River Valley. The result was river gravels and sand along the area of the Saxon Pit in addition to the slightly older ice wasting deposits. The LiDAR shows this rather well.

Saxon Pit area
Blue arrows on the east show current South Fork Nooksack flow direction. Blue arrow on the west shows the Samish River flow direction. Blue dashed arrow shows one of the late glacial flow paths of South Fork as well as a broad outwash plain to the south. Soft dimples within the upland area between arrows are kettles - locations where blocks of ice where partially buried and then melted leaving behind depressions in the landscape.

Back to the policy. Although initially supported the final amendment to expand the MRL failed to get 4 votes needed and hence the area is not designated a MRL and is not eligible to seek mining permits in Whatcom County.

Concrete Nor'west filed an appeal to the Growth Management Hearings Board. They argued that since the proposed MRL met the County's Comprehensive Plan MRL designation criteria, the MRL designation amendment should have been approved. The County argued successfully that meeting the criteria was the minimum needed to be considered, but consideration does not mean the county must act and the council weighed the potential conflicts of land use and chose not support the amendment. The Hearings Board agreed

Concrete Nor'west has appealed the Boards ruling to the State Court of Appeals the Appellants' brief is here.pdf, the Whatcom County Respondent's Brief.pdf and Concrete Nor'west Reply.pdf.

I will offer the opinion that Concrete Nor'west has little chance of prevailing.

The issue though will not end at this point. Counties are required to periodically update various aspects of their Comprehensive plans, and Whatcom will be required to update its natural resources plans including mining resources. Hence, the Surface Mining Advisory Committee. The Saxon Pit area as well as other locations will provide case studies to contemplate.      


Dan McShane said...

I deleted the first comment due to it not being accurate and it disparaged someone that did not do what the comment stated. The second comment while informative on another matter and has some relation to the Saxon Pit lacks proper context and timing.
That said I did appreciate the comments.

Ryan M. Ferris said...

This comment could get deleted as out of place as well. I am rapidly coming to the opinion that local government is far too involved in technical issues and details of economic use and planning. I think most of all land use issues, urban planning, and development should be organized, run, and adjudicated by the state and state only and that local governments should simply implement the economic imperatives and planning agendas of Olympia. Centralized economic planning (which in some way happens practically by adjudication at the Growth Management Board anyway) would be the most efficient use of our state government. The layers of local Port,County and City government should have plenty of input on issues like land use planning, taxes, gravel mines but ultimately all these issues involve some level of technical expertise and macroeconomic overview that I think is in short supply for small counties. In Whatcom County, I think we just bungle these issues too much, spend too much time discussing them and fetter away local political resources that could be concentrated on implementing support services for example. I realize the GMA wants to be a partnership between Olympia and local jurisdictions. I really wonder whether that creates more problems than it is worth. I think the state should rule with a firmer hand.

Dan McShane said...

Very thoughtful and astute comment Ryan. I would say that we as a State have asked a great deal of our local city and county governments - at time perhaps too much.