Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne

Cottonwood Gravel Pit Permit Not Granted After Split Vote


SEELEY LAKE – After a four and a half hour hearing and two motions on the table that ended in a tie, the Powell County Planning Board was unable to approve or deny the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for the proposed gravel pit on Cottonwood Lakes Road. According to Powell County Planner Carl Hamming, the permit was not granted so the petitioner can readdress some of the discussion points and resubmit a new CUP if they choose.

The Birdhead Company, LLC purchased the quarter section four miles east of Highway 83 and south of Cottonwood Lakes Road this past October. The intent was to develop the property for a sand and gravel operation.

Frank Tabish of LHC Inc. in Kalispell, Mont. applied for the CUP with Powell County to establish and operate a 26.5-acre gravel pit within the 160-acre property. Gary Lewis, owner of Deer Creek Aggregates, will be leasing the pit after it has been developed. In the draft Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Opencut Mining Plan of Operation, the estimated material removed would be 300,000 cubic yards.

At the public hearing in Deer Lodge Dec. 8, Hamming said there were around 35 property owners from the Double Arrow Ranch next to the proposed gravel pit as well as Frank Tabish and Gary Lewis in attendance. The majority testifying spoke in opposition to the pit. Tabish frequently answered questions from the board and members of the public.

Hamming said one of the big points of contention was the safety on Cottonwood Lakes Road. This included how narrow the road is, recreational use on it and informing recreational users of truck traffic.

Ginny Sullivan with the Adventure Cycling Association submitted an opposition letter dated Dec. 7. Sullivan said the group opposed the gravel pit because of its location on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. They felt the gravel operation would seriously affect the health, safety and enjoyment of touring cyclists visiting the Seeley-Swan Valleys by: the dust created by the machinery and truck traffic; pairing truck traffic with cyclists on a narrow, winding roadway combined with the dust in the wake of the trucks inhibiting other motorists from seeing the cyclists; and the long hours of operation, 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. creating loud and continuous noise, impacting cyclists’ health and ability to enjoy the area.

In her letter, Sullivan also argued the value of recreation and tourism over time “greatly outweighs any short-term benefits this gravel mine will have on the region.”

Hamming said the other main points of discussion included environmental concerns surrounding ground water and other environmental impacts and the status of the adjacent Double Arrow Ranch in regards to zoning and state law. While Double Arrow is a residential subdivision and has its covenants, it is not zoned residential by Missoula County.

“This created some confusion around how Montana Code is written since there is language that sand and gravel pits may be permitted but not next to a zoned, residential neighborhood. That is a little bit tricky,” said Hamming. “[The Powell County Attorney] recommended the board be very vocal and clear about their reasons for approval or denial [in regards to the Double Arrow and should they approve the permit with conditions]. He could see grounds on either side of the case but [told the board they] just really needed to stick to those reasons why [they made their decision].”

At one point Hamming said the board motioned to deny the permit. The vote was split 3-3. One member abstained from voting due to a conflict of interest.

The board continued their discussion and explored the option of approving the permit with conditions. Hamming said some of these conditions included hours of operation, working with the US Forest Service and dealing with road concerns, length of permission to operate the pit for the 10-year window, and non-transferrable CUP permission and compliance with Department of Environmental Quality rules and regulations to address environmental concerns.

The board made another motion to approve the CUP with conditions. The vote was again split 3-3.

“So with those two motions not going anywhere the permit died,” said Hamming.

Hamming continued, “From my point of view that is the way board meetings should go with a public hearing. Everyone got to state their opinion and voice their concerns. It was quite civil. People were very respectful and responsible and listened to one another. It was healthy and it was good. Until we get another application from LHC or Mr. Lewis it is out of our hands.”


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