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Calhan crater's a pit much 

Neighbors' opposition no match for growing gravel needs

click to enlarge Trucks loaded with fresh gravel roll out of the Sokol pit - on a recent morning. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Trucks loaded with fresh gravel roll out of the Sokol pit on a recent morning.

After nearly 11 hours, Dave and Tracy Doran decided they'd had enough.

They walked away from the El Paso County Office Building around 8:30 p.m., thinking of dinner and the 40-minute drive east to their home. Upstairs, county commissioners sat in their meeting room, hammering out conditions to allow a gravel and cement company to expand the Sokol gravel pit, south of Calhan, from 40 acres to nearly 300.

In the weeks and months leading up to Monday's public hearing and commission decision, the Dorans and other pit neighbors had devised strategies for fighting that expansion. A massive operation to mine sand and gravel, they argued, did not fit with their rural lifestyle. Even if the company paved the dirt road that passes many of their homes and carries all the pit's traffic, they said, extra vehicles from the expansion would still increase noise and the risk of collisions.

They hired attorneys to help in their fight. At the hearing, many residents spoke passionately about their concerns.

But Monday night, the Dorans predicted the outcome even before the commissioners voted.

"This is disheartening," Tracy Doran said as she climbed into their car.

Less than an hour later, the four commissioners at the meeting Sallie Clark was absent approved the permit for Rocky Mountain Materials and Asphalt to expand the pit and to start on-site processing of sand and gravel mined there.

The public hearing actually had started Oct. 11, the preceding Thursday. Neighbors opposed to the plan filled rows of chairs at the back of the meeting room. Employees of Rocky Mountain Materials sat near the front.

Commissioner Douglas Bruce commented during a break that he had never seen the room so packed.

Nevertheless, commissioners spent much of the day dealing with a billboard permit dispute and plans for a subdivision. It was nearly 5 p.m. when Sokol pit discussion started.

To speed things along, Commission Chair Dennis Hisey suggested letting opponents of the expansion speak first, turning the normal order staff report, applicant's case, positive comments, then dissent on its head.

No way, the neighbors said.

It was on that note that the hearing began. County staff members outlined the proposal, noting the county planning commission had approved it a month earlier.

Then, just before 6, Hisey adjourned the meeting. Two commissioners had dinner plans.

Public hearing, part two

A slightly smaller crowd of neighbors and Rocky Mountain employees gathered around 9:30 a.m. four days later.

County staff members finished their report on the proposal. In a "worst-case scenario," area residents could see 480 trips in and out of the pit in a day.

John McCarty, the county's transportation director, talked about the county's own need to have a source of gravel to maintain hundreds of miles of dirt roads.

That's when Bill Louis, the acting county attorney, quickly cut in.

"Whether or not the pit is an advantage to the county," Louis said, "is not to be considered."

Rob Mangone, representing Rocky Mountain Materials and the family trust that owns the pit, presented his case next. So far, he explained, the company has mainly used the pit as a gravel source. By putting equipment on-site to process and wash sand, it would be able to use the material for concrete and other building materials.

To be "neighborly," Mangone said, the company has offered to limit times when sand is processed and to pave Soap Weed Road, the pit's main access.

It was afternoon before expansion opponents spoke. Lori Torrini said she moved to a home nearby to enjoy the quiet. Already, gravel-pit racket has kept her up at night, Torrini said, and now the company wants to operate 24 hours a day, six days a week.

"I don't know how we're going to be able to sleep," she said. "I think it's just unconscionable that the pit owners would subject us to that."

Dave Doran talked about the visual impact of a pit that could become 150 feet deep. Others spoke of disruptions to groundwater flow, destruction of property values and problems with dust.

Mixed responses

Commissioners were understanding of some concerns and dismissive of others. As for noise, Rocky Mountain agreed to cut nighttime truck trips for some of the year and to limit when it processes gravel. Regarding worries about property values, Bruce said requiring Rocky Mountain Materials to pave Soap Weed Road should make those values go up.

And Bruce, in particular, bristled at the notion that one property owner could tell another what to do on his or her land based on visual impact. (In an area of rolling hills, Commissioner Wayne Williams added, what difference is there if a particular area happens to roll up or down?)

For Dave Doran, such logic offered little comfort. One recent morning, he walked to a ridge above his home near the south edge of the pit. To the west, a flat expanse of grassland rolled toward Pikes Peak and neighboring mountains, a view that Doran said drew him and his wife to the area.

Doran imagined what the hillside above his home will look like after the gravel and sand are mined out.

"A giant crater," he said.

lane@csindy.com

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