Lemmie Rockford, owner of a gravel mine west of Exit 59 (pictured), has applied for a zoning change with Lewis County to amend his property from agriculture resource land to mining resource land. Residents say they are upset with Rockford for having established the mine prior to receiving zoning approval, and are protesting the Lewis County Planning Commission to turn down Rockford’s request. (Photo by Gregg Pohll)
Local residents have spoken out against what they see as the un-permitted use of agricultural land for mining purposes as the landowner in question seeks a zoning change from the county.
During a meeting of the Lewis County Planning Commission June 10, more than 20 residents from the Toledo area spoke against a request by Lemmie Rockford, owner of 57 acres of agriculturally-zoned land along the Cowlitz River west of Exit 59, to re-zone the land for mining, despite Rockford’s establishment of an un-zoned gravel mine in 2012 at the location.
“I see it, I hear it all the time, I can’t get away from it,” said resident Jesse Gac, who lives near the gravel pit and was among residents who complained of noise pollution, dust being blown from the site, and changes in the smell of local groundwater. “It’s grown where it shouldn’t be.”
Speaking on behalf of concerned residents was Olympia-based attorney Mick Phillips, who told commissioners a permit to excavate 20 acres of the property for an artificial pond had been granted by the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 1994 to then-property owner Ron Wallace.
Phillips said Wallace’s intention was to create a pond in the middle of a pasture, and said, after the permit was acquired by Rockford with his purchase of the property in May of 2012, Rockford has violated the conditions of the permit by digging both outside the permitted area for the pond and failing to account for the eventual reclamation of the land.
“We don’t want it expanded, we don’t want it re-zoned,” said Phillips, who provided the commission with more than 300 documents related to his clients’ arguments, including a DNR report of the state’s recent follow-ups with Rockford regarding possible violations of the Surface Mining Reclamation Act.
In the report, dated March 22 of last year, officials noted the topsoil within the field was not being protected or replaced as is required by state law, while excavation had been taking place outside the south and west boundaries originally designated for the pond.
“The disturbed area has exceeded the permit boundary,” stated the report, adding, “an expanded reclamation permit application must be submitted.”
While the problems identified by DNR were required to be corrected by May 25, 2013, Rockford has yet to respond to the report, according to Phillips.
Also affirming the concerns of residents was Ron Averill, president of the Lewis County Farm Bureau, who told commissioners the composition and depth of the topsoil at the property, estimated to be around 10 feet deep, was of substantial quality for crops such as hay, Christmas trees and pastures, among other agricultural uses.
“We are short on agricultural resource land,” said Averill, stating he was concerned about the capacity of Rockford to reclaim the land if it were allowed to be used for mining.
Residents concerned with a proposed zoning revision testified before the Lewis County Planning Commission June 10, with Commission Chair Mike Mahoney noting they had been the largest number of residents to attend a regular meeting so far this year.
Commissioners said reclamation was one of the issues they were most concerned about while reviewing public testimony, as it seemed clear to them any mining use of the property would prevent future uses for other purposes.
“It’s a one-way street,” said Commission Chair Mike Mahoney of a granting Rockford’s request, who also noted the mining use of the property would be far more economically valuable to the county than its agricultural use.
“I’m struggling here with the people in the area who don’t want it and a private person’s property rights,” added Commissioner Russ Prior.
Community Development Director Lee Napier advised the commission it is their responsibility to consider how best to protect the “critical resource” zoned within the property, stating a property owner’s intent with those resources would be out of their purview.
Also of concern for commissioners were the many reports of potential safety hazards related to Rockford’s mining activities, which included mining trucks entering and leaving the area while driving recklessly, slash piles burned without proper permitting, and roads and bridges leading to the mine having not been constructed for heavy industry.
“I will investigate that,” Napier told the commission of such concerns, adding she would also follow up with DNR to determine if Rockford is in violation of his state permit.
Though many statements were made about Rockford’s actions at his property, he did not personally speak in support of his request, though one resident did state Rockford was seen in attendance. Commissioner Clinton Brown said, while it is Rockford’s right to petition the county for a zoning change, he was taken aback that neither Rockford nor his supporters spoke in favor of the request or even identified themselves to the commission.
Town Crier attempted to contact Rockford by phone and email prior to deadline, but our requests for comment went unreturned.
At the end of the meeting, commissioners said they would like to schedule a workshop for July 22 to continue discussing the matter, including whether or not mining properties near Rockford’s location had similarly been zoned for agriculture prior to a mining designation. A public hearing has also been scheduled for July 29 to take further testimony from residents.
Mahoney clarified the commission’s role is to examine a land use matter and make an official recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners, who will then decide to approve or deny the request. He did note the high volume of resident in attendance that night and thanked them for showing interest in Planning Commission business.
Those who wish to send written statements prior to the hearing are encouraged to mail them to 2025 NE Kreskey Ave., Chehalis, WA, 98592, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.