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Homeowner Steve Vaughan, who intervened in the zoning lawsuit against a Placitas gravel mine, explains details of the proposed settlement that will close the mine during an Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA) meeting.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Gravel lawsuit settlement near, although closing the quarry isn’t

~Bill Diven

A tentative agreement to end a zoning lawsuit will close an 800-plus-acre gravel quarry in Placitas, but aggrieved neighbors will have to wait nearly ten years for that to happen.

The settlement, announced at a July 21 meeting of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA), had been signed by the parties but was undergoing final review by their attorneys. It still needs approval by the Sandoval County Commission and would take effect with a judge's final OK at a hearing that had not yet been scheduled.

If approved, gravel mining would end with land reclamation completed in nine years and nine months, early in 2027.

The case began in 2014 when Sandoval County sued several Lafarge companies, alleging violations of a 1988 zoning agreement. Vulcan Materials later bought Lafarge, and ES-CA, with its Land Use Protection Trust, joined the lawsuit on behalf of Placitas residents.

Mt. Adams Holdings, owner of the 1,008-acre property leased to Vulcan, also is a party to the suit.

"Some of you may not be happy with the settlement, and that's to be expected," ES-CA President Chris Daul said in opening the July meeting. "A lot of people worked long and hard to make this happen… The county commission did a real stand-up job of working with the residents of Placitas."

Some of the one hundred people in the audience certainly weren't happy to learn Vulcan's mining is headed their way. Under the timeline presented at the meeting, digging on south side adjacent to Anasazi Trails and Anasazi Meadows will end in three or four years and then begin gnawing in the northeast to within one hundred feet of Sundance Mesa properties.

A ridgeline providing the near horizon for some Sundance residents is expected to disappear.

"One hundred feet is not very far," Daniel Harbour said. "That big hill that protects Sundance Mesa from all that garbage is going away… Think of the dust: it's constant, never-ending. It's going to be a big pit down there with a thirty-, forty-, fifty-foot drop."

Residents also voiced ongoing complaints about noise, reduced property values, and health concerns from the fine dust drifting through their neighborhoods.

Dick Ulmer and Steve Vaughn of ES-CA, members of the land trust and parties to the lawsuit as individual homeowners, called the settlement a reasonable compromise given the risks, expense, and potential outcomes of going to trial. While confident in their legal arguments, they said Vulcan's lawyers also had ammunition, including a letter from the county allegedly voiding the 1988 zoning agreement.

"If we lost, they could have gone to the edges unrestricted and unregulated by the county," Vaughan said. "It's at least eight hundred acres, and it's going to get bigger than what you see. That was going to happen regardless of what we did."

Even if the trust and the county won at trial, the likely appeal by Vulcan would take years to resolve, they added. Closing the quarry and reclaiming the land in nine years and nine months was a compromise between the five years ES-CA wanted and the 15 years Vulcan sought.

"The time to nine years is at least finite," Ulmer added. "Now they have a deadline."

A Vulcan spokesperson contacted by the Signpost declined to comment on the agreement saying it was still not official.

A previous attempt to settle the case failed when ES-CA rejected Vulcan's proposal and county commissioners voted it down on June 1. The breakthrough in negotiations happened when it became obvious ES-CA and the county were willing to battle the case in District Court, County Commission Chairman Don Chapman said during the ES-CA meeting.

"We said, 'Let's go to trial,'" Chapman said. "I think that shook up Vulcan's lawyers… I don't think they knew the commission would stand up and fight for its citizens."

Chapman's comment about protecting citizens drew raucous applause.

He also speculated that the June 29 industrial accident—in which a collapsing mountain of quarried sand and gravel trapped and injured four miners—may have played a role in the settlement (See related story, page 12, this Signpost).

"After that accident, it's amazing how quickly the deal came together," he said.

Ulmer and Vaughan also said Vulcan shows signs of being a better corporate neighbor than Lafarge and has been watering roadways daily to reduce dust. During settlement discussions Vulcan appeared willing to open new lines of communication with residents once the deal is final.

That suggests that residents may be able to influence how Vulcan and its subsidiary CalMat proceed in removing millions of tons of marketable sand and gravel, they said.

"Sundance has to organize," added George Franzen, an ES-CA member who serves on the land trust oversight board.

While the court can enforce settlement requirements, the New Mexico Environment Department has jurisdiction over air-quality standards, ES-CA leaders noted. Complaints in the past resulted in citations issued to Lafarge and placement of an air-monitoring station downwind from the quarry.

An attempt by ES-CA and local legislators in the 2015 Legislature to increase fines of $300 a day to $1,000 a day for gravel mines violating county zoning ordinances failed in the face of opposition by miners and construction contractors.

Mt. Adams Holdings, which shields its investors but includes an associate of billionaire Bill Gates on its board, also has a stake in proper reclamation of the quarry, according to ES-CA. With conditional-use zoning ending when mining stops, the land reverts to the area's overall rural residential and agricultural zoning for future development by Mt. Adams.

Quarrying began in the early 1970s on about five acres east of the Interstate 25 frontage road and about a mile north of State Road 165. The 1988 zoning agreement came when the town of Bernalillo managed a development buffer around the town under what was known as extraterritorial zoning (ETZ).

The agreement, signed by the town zoning officer, limited where and how Lafarge could quarry the site, mandating that Lafarge complete work in one area before moving to another.

When ETZ ended, zoning responsibilities fell to Sandoval County. In November 2008, current county Planning and Zoning Director Michael Springfield, in a letter to Lafarge, wrote "to confirm the "grandfather" status of your sand and gravel mining operations in the Placitas community" based on a review of the 1988 agreement.

Lafarge and its attorneys interpreted that as permitting a return to its unregulated pre-1988 activities. Activity at the site quickly expanded.

Under pressure from ES-CA and area residents, the county sued Lafarge in April 2014. Vulcan inherited the case with its purchase five months later of Lafarge assets including the quarry known as the Baca Pit east of Algodones.

ES-CA, Ulmer, and Vaughan, citing a lack of representation for Placitas residents, won court approval to join the lawsuit in August 2016.

Since then, ES-CA research and public presentations have added an economic argument saying gravel mining generates less revenue for the county than residential development, reduces property values and therefore taxes, and discourages new residents, particularly retirees with disposable income, from moving to Placitas and supporting the local economy. The state taxes collected on gravel sales are charged at the point of delivery, so most of that revenue goes to Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, according to the research.

ES-CA also has cited the large volumes of water pumped from the aquifer and used in gravel processing.

Residents saying they were blindsided by the extent of the mine also complained they were led to believe an agreement between developers and the mining company they saw before buying their homes indicated mining would end in 2015.

"I went through every document I could go through to see if there was a smoking gun," Ulmer said. Instead he found that agreement related to protesting mining activities during the then-current lease and had no impact on the zoning or future mining leases.


Deal to build Algodones flood dam down to details

~Signpost Staff

A plan to protect Algodones from two arroyos that flood the community has advanced to the point where little is left but negotiating a final price for the land needed for a dam and holding pond.

For a while it appeared a condemnation lawsuit would be needed for the Eastern Sandoval County Arroyo and Flood Control Authority to set a price for the land and force a sale. Instead, landowner Al Baca worked with the authority to sell 4.5 acres just east of Interstate 25.

The land is part of a one-thousand-acre tract Baca leases to Vulcan Materials for gravel mining, and Baca and the gravel company still need to work out a release of the mineral rights for that portion. The land already has been mined, and releasing the rights will clear the title allowing the sale to proceed, ESCAFCA Executive Engineer Larry Blair said during the July 19 authority board meeting.

If all goes well, construction of a dam will begin this fall and be done in the spring, Blair later told the Signpost. The estimated construction cost is $450,000.

The earthen dam would collect runoff and discharge it slowly into the southern arroyo, which drains directly into the Rio Grande. The project is designed to protect against the so-called One-Hundred-Year Flood.

Two summer storms in 2014 sent runoff into homes in the southern part of Algodones and damaged part of the community's irrigation system.

 
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