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A political decision.

Byline: The Register-Guard

In voting Tuesday to deny Eugene Sand & Gravel's application for permission to mine gravel on a 575-acre site near River Road, three members of the Lane County Board of Commissioners hung their hats on an unexpected peg. The problem isn't dust, noise or traffic - there's not enough gravel at the site to justify sacrificing farmland, the board's majority said. The board's action looks like one in which the decision preceded the rationale.

Whether a lot of gravel lies below the surface of the property that Eugene Sand hopes to mine is an important question - not least to the company, which has no interest in dry holes. Eugene Sand officials are betting the company on the strength of their belief that the site has enough gravel to sustain mining operations for decades to come.

But the amount of gravel is also the subject of state rules, and thus has become a subject of dispute in the two-year struggle between Eugene Sand and opponents of its plans. Oregon's land-use rules aim to protect Willamette Valley farmland, while also ensuring an adequate supply of rock products. The rules balance these conflicting goals by prohibiting gravel pits where 35 percent or more of the land is covered by Class 1 soils. And on land where more than 35 percent of the soils are Class 1 and Class 2, the applicant must prove that the gravel layer is more than 60 feet thick.

It's a sensible rule: The best farmland should be protected, and society's need for rock products can be met by fewer aggregate mining operations if mining is restricted to areas where the gravel is most abundant.

Ninety-two percent of the soils on Eugene Sand's site are Class 1 and 2, so the company needed to prove that a thick stratum of gravel lies beneath the surface. Drilling showed two layers of gravel, separated by a layer of clay, altogether averaging 77 feet thick. Opponents of the gravel pit argued that the clay layer should be subtracted, leaving only 55 feet of gravel - not enough to meet the state standard.

In an advisory opinion, the Department of Land Conservation and Development, which administers the land-use rules, rejected the opponents' claim, as did the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. The county Planning Commission decided unanimously that the amount of gravel at the site is adequate to meet state standards. The county's planning staff agreed last week, recommending that the board find that "the applicant has demonstrated there exists a significant mineral and aggregate resource at the site."

But the board's majority - Bill Dwyer, Anna Morrison and Peter Sorenson - accepted the opponents' claim that the band of clay should not be counted. It also took a new look at the question of soil types. Eugene Sand proposes to mine the site in separate stages, or "cells," moving from one to the next over the course of several decades. The board evaluated each of three cells separately, and found that one of them has more than 50 percent Class 1 soils.

Application denied: Too much top-class soil, not enough gravel.

The company might have designed its cells in such a way that none had more than 35 percent Class 1 soil, but it had every reason to expect that its proposal would be judged as a whole. And after Tuesday, Eugene Sand might have had reason to suspect that its application would be denied no matter what, because the board's majority could find that an acre of the property had 100 percent Class 1 soil and no gravel whatsoever.

The decision will be appealed to the state Land Use Board of Appeals, and probably to the Oregon Court of Appeals after that. That same script would have been followed if the board had approved Eugene Sand's proposal, with the opponents filing the appeal. The board no doubt understood that its decision would not be the final word, and therefore members may have felt free to vote in whatever way promised to offer the greatest political advantage.

If that's the case, the vote was no surprise: In a popularity contest between gravel pits and farms, gravel pits will lose every time. Yet there may be some voters who will remember to take note of whether LUBA and the courts accept the board's reading of gravel pit siting rules.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:County board rejects gravel pit; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 6, 2001
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