Seward Planning and Zoning Commission members voted 3-2 at a special meeting Tuesday night to award a temporary Conditional-Use permit to Alaska Roadbuilders Inc, allowing that company to operate an asphalt batch plant on two private lots at the northwest corner of Forest Acres and the Japp Creek Drainage. The decision came after a heated public hearing and discussion that lasted nearly two and a half hours.
It was a difficult decision for many commission members, some of who live at Forest Acres or know the residents who filled the Council Chambers at City Hall. They were under pressure to make a prompt decision before the paving season window would close, and having had no work sessions to explain the proposal, and after a flurry of public opposition.
Alaska Roadbuilders is privately-owned asphalt and paving company based in Soldotna. It already extracts gravel on the site, and has been actively crushing it this summer. The batch plant would be set up and operated on private land owned by Afognak Construction for about 10 days, spread out over a 30 day period through September. The plant would be operated between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 pm.
The asphalt would be used for a variety of projects such as resurfacing the Seward Highway from mile 17.5 to 22.5; the inmate yard at Spring Creek Correctional Center, and possibly some smaller jobs for the city. The plant would operate on land zoned “Resource Management,” behind and beside, but upwind of a residential area.
Forest Acres residents were alerted to the conditional use permit (CUP) hearing by schoolteacher Leigh Ray via her website, which was also posted on Seward City News, and by neighbors knocking on doors and informing one another. Several emailed, and petitioned the zoning commission against granting the CUP after experiencing a summer of gravel extraction and unusually noisy new gravel-crushing operations there that they said disturbed their tranquility, kept them awake at night, and scared off the wildlife. Ray and neighbors also were concerned about the additional dust created by heavy industrial traffic through their quiet neighborhood, and the smells and emissions from an asphalt plant.
Should Alaska Roadbuilders get a permit from the University of Alaska in time, the company’s preferred travel plan would be to run their heavy trucks from the site across university property to Diamond Boulevard, then out to Seward Highway via Dieckgraeff (or levee) Road. If not, the trucks would have to travel south on Pine to Cottonwood Street, east to Maple Street, north to Dieckgraeff and then out to the highway, passing some residential homes along the way.
Leigh Ray spoke first, after hearing City Planner Donna Glenz explain the reason for the needed CUP—because the term “asphalt plant” had been inadvertently left of the list of permitted uses associated with a gravel operation in a Resource Development zone. Ray voiced concern that the commission would focus on the technical legality of the proposed operation from a planner’s perspective, and ignore the resident’s quality-of-life concerns. She also was discouraged by the city and applicant’s economic arguments for operating the plant so close to her neighborhood. While she too supports a vibrant local economy and good roads, Ray said, everything in Seward is expensive as it must be transported here, including gas and food. Devaluing residential property values also would hurt the economy.
Eight other Forest Acres residents also testified against permitting the plant, as even more of their neighbors filled the chairs, nodding in agreement. They included Gerry Fogg, Sarah McDonald, Griffin and Denise Plush, Kristy Sholly, Virginia Allen, Dave Paperman, and Leigh’s husband, Brian.
Brian said the hearing appeared to violate the commission’s own bylaws which stated that all permit applicants must submit their materials not less than three weeks of the regularly scheduled meeting. Alaska Roadbuilders had altered its proposed operations plan in several ways, and brought them to planner’s attention within a week of the hearing date, however.
The recent change in plan, limiting the plant’s operations to 10 days (rather than a full year) did not allay the residents’ concerns, especially after learning that gravel extraction would continue indefinitely under an existing conditional use permit.
Griffin Plush, a junior at Seward High School who is on the school cross-country team testified he enjoys running the trails along Japp Creek behind his own home, and appreciates the pristine Alaskan beauty of the area. Plush understands the economic arguments for a local asphalt plant, but wondered why one had to be located so close to residential areas.
His mother Denise, a nurse at the long-term care facility Seward Mountain Haven, pointed out the plant’s proximity to the elder care facility and to the local schools. Many of her patients already suffer from compromised breathing conditions, she said, and even 10 days of operations could mean trips to the Emergency Room or hospitalization for them. Young students at school with breathing issues also could be vulnerable to the asphalt plant emissions, she said.
Kristy Sholly said she felt compelled to “drag” her family along, even on the first new school night. “I do have young children and big concerns, and I do care about community, she said, as her husband held the baby and watched their daughter. “And I question why (put an asphalt plant) near a residential area, a residential elder care facility and schools?”. “We do hear the sound, and wonder why you haven’t heard the noise. Ten days of that is not acceptable. I hope you reconsider the location.”
Gerry Fogg and Virginia Allen raised concerns about the additional dust from truck traffic, and wear on their unpaved roads. “Residential and heavy industrial are not compatible things,” Allen said. “We’ve already lost a little girl,” she concluded, referring to the 2009 death of Brianne Toth, 22, who was cycling near the corner of Hemlock and Seward Highway at Forest Acres when a semi-truck struck her.
Jim Hunt, speaking as both Seward City Manager, and the new owner of property he purchased from Afognak Corporation and plans to develop near the top of Ash Street, was the only property owner in the area to testify in favor of granting the CUP permit. He knew full well about the gravel operation and permit when he purchased his property, he said, and added that Afognak had been “very accommodating.” The troublesome noises would only last 10 days, he said, and dust concerns by truck travel on the roads could be addressed by the city by applying calcium.
Gravel extraction and allowing an asphalt plant to operate there, he said, was a good tradeoff for accomplishing city projects and repairing roads that the city has struggled to accomplish this year. And they could be done at a third or a quarter of the cost. The quality of gravel at Japp Creek is truly the best to be had anywhere because of its size and how hard it is. If asphalt could be laid down hotter, it would adhere better to road surfaces, he said. Hunt acknowledged the asphalt projects planned for September wouldn’t be used to repave the cracked and potholed downtown roads and sidewalks this construction season, adding that the city is still “bartering” with the Obama administration to get back a portion of the $3 million in federal funds it had “taken back” after promising the money to the city in 2011 for road repairs prior to Hunt’s arrival.
Alaska Roadbuilder’s manager Chuck Davis testified last.
“I humbly apologize, and if I had to do it over again, I would have. It was a poor judgment, and I apologize to the neighbors. I certainly didn’t come here to make enemies. Nobody likes (asphalt plants) in their back yard. When I chose that location I did not realize there were neighbors.” Davis promised to remove the asphalt plant for good following the work, and to find a better location to operate one locally in the future, perhaps one outside city limits. If denied a CUP, he said he would truck the material out to another location, and turn produce the asphalt at the new site. In the future, he also would bring crushing operations to the alternate area, he told SCN later. Davis assured residents that the loudest, and most aggravating work noises that had disturbed their peace, came from the crusher, and was over.
But he warned that both his company, and others would continue to want to extract it due to the superb nature of the gravel coming from Japp Creek, and that another company still might want to come in and operate an asphalt plant there, even if he won’t.
Also, he added, extraction efforts at Japp Creek drainage is worthwhile for flood control purposes, even though it would take years of gravel removal to keep pace with the amount already deposited there, and at Fourth of July Creek.
Commissioner Dale Butts said he supported granting the temporary CUP because a lot of things Seward needed would now get fixed, and if the project were postponed or delayed, the work season would end, and the work contracts that Davis had already lined up wouldn’t get done. Bixler McClure agreed, and said he would vote in favor of the application as it was only a temporary operation.
“I’m torn because I also live in Forest Acres,” said Commission Chair Sandie Roach, who was the third vote in favor of granting the CUP. “I value our roads, but we also have the crushing. I see an industry on the move. I hate smell of tar and hot oil. I’m really torn about putting this this close to a residential area. But it’s for ten days, and I know this community will hold us to this ten days if this passes.”
Commissioner Cindy Eckland apologized that the commission had not considered the possibility of an asphalt plant in the list of defined uses for a conditional use permit, and urged residents to become more involved in the process. She also had proposed a resolution allowing the plant only if the trucks got a permit to drive out across University of Alaska land, rather than through neighborhoods. That motion failed 3:2.
She urged residents to stay tuned to future developments, and to be watchdogs for operations, assuring that the companies not violate the noise ordinance, or any others.
“I really feel this is putting an industrial area too close to a residential area. I don’t see how I would want that in my neighborhood, even temporarily,” said Commissioner Martha Fleming. “We’re crossing a line that doesn’t have to be crossed. I’m sorry he’s put so much money into it, but it’s not here yet, and can be moved. The bottom line is he can take all the rock, but can put it elsewhere.”
Although their efforts to prevent the asphalt operation in its current location ultimately failed, Forest Acres residents said they learned a lot about the zoning process, and felt encouraged to continue to be more actively involved in the gravel work occurring in the area. They called the hearing a “wake-up call,” and promised to complain to the city planner if operations continued to occur outside of allowable times, or to notify authorities if they believe that requirements of the 2005 gravel CUP or other state or federal laws are being violated, which could constitute a reason to revoke the existing CUP.
Interested residents were strongly encouraged to volunteer for a vacant seat on the commission. P&Z Commissioner Alexis Campestre was absent from the meeting.
Reporter Heidi Zemach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org