SAGLE — Bonner County commissioners unanimously upheld on Friday the Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision allowing the installation of an asphalt batch plant despite a determined wave of resistance from neighboring and nearby landowners.
The county commission’s affirmation of the P&Z ruling on a proposal to relocate an existing Interstate Concrete & Asphalt batching plant on Baldy Mountain Road to Frank Linscott’s gravel quarry on the west side of U.S. Highway 95 north of Monarch Road followed a five-hour appeal hearing which filled an 85-seat conference room to overflowing. All but one of the 38 people who testified were in opposition to the relocation proposal.
A temporary batch plant has operated at the quarry intermittently over the years to accommodate large highway projects in the Panhandle. An attempt to make the plant permanent was made in 2015, although a previous board of county commissioners ruled it was too incompatible with the county’s comprehensive land use plan.
The proposal re-emerged last November and was approved by P&Z, but the approval was appealed by landowners who contend a permanent plant would jeopardize air and water quality, diminish their health and cast a pall over their property values.
The project has been heralded as a natural fit by supporters and decried as an unholy union by opponents.
Interstate’s presentation was strikingly similar to its 2015 presentation, which included a video of a comparable batch plant and images from other Interstate operations which reportedly harmoniously abut residential uses in Spokane, Wash.
Jared Wise, director of Interstate’s Sandpoint operations, said the plant has more than 400 pollution filter socks and stack testing has shown that emissions are up to 73 percent below thresholds established by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
Relocating the plant would also eliminate the 7 1/2-mile commute Interstate’s trucks make hauling aggregate from the quarry to the Sandpoint plant for processing, which means lower prices for the company’s public- and private-sector customers.
Steven Syrcle, the project’s engineer, told commissioners the Sandpoint plant has been operating for years without calamity in an area that has 422 parcels in a half-mile radius. If relocated to Sagle, the plant would be in the half-mile radius of 44 parcels.
“They have been successfully operating them in a safe manner,” Syrcle said of Interstate’s plants here and elsewhere.
Both sides came to Friday’s hearing with competing studies which alternately argued that asphalt plant operations were either relatively benign or a carcinogen-belching health threat.
Of particular concern were the stockpiles of disused road asphalt which is recycled into new asphalt. Opponents maintained that stormwater runoff from the stockpiles would infiltrate the ground and threaten the quality of wells and the Sagle Aquifer.
“That’s drinking water for hundreds of households,” said Mike Erickson.
Erickson was among several landowners who advocated for a study of baseline water quality conditions and test wells to determine if the plant is indeed fouling the environment. There was also the belief that commissioners had unofficially decided the matter in advance of the hearing and that there due process rights were being violated because Interstate was given an hour and a half to make its presentation, while individual landowners had only three minutes to give their remarks.
Interstate’s operational track record in Sagle was also a matter of dispute. Some said they filed formal complaints about Interstate’s temporary operations with the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office, which allegedly said that it could not document those complaints due to a computer glitch.
Elise Tuma, however, vividly recalled being forced indoors because of the noxious odors and toxic emissions.
“It was horrible. I could not work out in my own yard,” she said.
Sagle resident and real estate broker Alex Murray told commissioners the area has $397 million in real estate which generates $3.4 million in tax revenue. Even if there was only a 35-percent decline in values, that value and revenue would drop to $139 million and $2.2 million, respectively.
“This is just the wrong place for it,” said Murray.
Opponents further argued that the quarry was a nonconforming use, although Bonner County Planning officials said the pit has been operating under a conditional use permit since the 1990s.
Some also argued that the volume of opposition required commissioners to turn the proposal down, although the board said it had to decide the proposal based on the law rather than public’s wishes.
Commissioner Dan McDonald said he had trouble with the argument that Interstate’s operations would go from smooth to horrible simply by changing zip codes.
“I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that somehow changing,” said McDonald.
Commissioner Jeff Connolly bristled at the accusation that the board had prejudged the appeal and noted that Interstate has not revealed itself to a “bad actor” in its operations here and elsewhere in the Northwest.
“I don’t see a lot of places better than this,” added Connolly. “The fact of the matter is that these plants are going to be somewhere.”
Board Chairman Glen Bailey said conditions of approval, which include requiring Interstate to use the best-available emission control technologies and operating within state and federal air quality guidelines, adequately safeguard the public.
“The conditions, if we go ahead and decide to approve this, pretty much cover the concerns we have heard today,” he said.
Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.