Thursday, September 28, 2023

Bernalillo Gravel Mining Winding Down




A manmade mountain of gravel that took seven years to build is slowly fading away as a Bernalillo quarry moves toward closure.


Fisher Sand & Gravel-New Mexico Inc. won annexation of 43 acres into the town in January 2015 in part by agreeing to cease mining after seven years. The company then had an additional two years to remove stockpiled material and complete remediation of the disturbed acreage.


That places the final closure in January 2024. The property lies in the escarpment east of Interstate 25 on the unpaved frontage road south of State Road 165. It is not related to the quarries operated by Vulcan Materials Inc. on the frontage road north of NM 165 in western Placitas and near Algodones.


Since it began operating under Bernalillo zoning limits, few if any complaints have found their way to the town government.


"They've been a fine corporate neighbor in terms of day-to-day operations," Town Planning Director Stephanie Shumsky said. "From what we've seen, they've been complying with the requirements and slowing things down up there."


The company did not respond to a January 2022 letter advising them the deadline to stop mining had arrived although a response was not required, she added. New Mexico-based Fisher Vice President David Olson also did not respond to a query from the Signpost on progress in meeting the upcoming deadline and on future plans for the site.


By 2012, when Bernalillo first considered Fisher's request for annexation, the company already had contentious relationships with Sandoval and Santa Fe counties and nearby residents. Central in both instances were alleged attempts to set up asphalt plants without proper permits, and in the case of Placitas, dust blowing into residential areas.


Neither plant opened, and Fisher officials said the equipment in Placitas was merely being stored there. Opponents of the annexation also brought up the North Dakota company's fines and settlements over numerous alleged air-quality and other violation by it operations in Arizona where company records show Thomas "Tommy" Fisher, president of a family run company, lives.


The Placitas-based Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA) challenged Fisher's initial request for annexation, which sought commercial zoning for future uses of the property. During public hearings ES-CA members said their goal was not stopping the annexation but assuring stringent zoning controls.


"I don't have anything negative to say," said current ES-CA President George Franzen. "We basically got what we wanted from Bernalillo as far as the mining goes, and, of course, they didn't get the asphalt plant."


Ultimately the Town Council approved M-1 light-industrial zoning and limits on work hours and water consumption. The actual mining operates under a conditional-use permit that specifically prohibited an asphalt plant and expires when the quarry shuts down in January


That will leave the underlying M-1 zoning in place. Among the permissive uses in M-1 zones not needing extra permitting are warehousing, light manufacturing and product assembly, churches, various cannabis enterprises and data centers.


During the annexation process, Fisher representatives said the company intends to leave the quarry site ready for development of some kind. The site currently is not connected to town utility systems.


A major beneficiary of the Fisher annexation was the Eastern Sandoval Arroyo and Flood Control Authority (ESCAFCA). Of its 43 acres, Fisher agreed to first mine 11 acres involving a major arroyo, contour it as a runoff detention basin, and donate the land to ESCAFCA for flood control.


ESCAFCA estimated Fisher saved the authority $400,000 in dirt work plus land costs. The Cañon del Agua Dam, also known as the Fisher Dam, was completed in 2016 and helps protect a Bernalillo neighborhood between South Hill Road and the railroad tracks.


Separately ES-CA intervened in a zoning lawsuit Sandoval County filed in 2014 against LaFarge North America and related companies, previous owner of the Vulcan quarries. The complicated history of the southernmost quarry, now known as Placitas Sand and Gravel, involved zoning issues, the disputed meaning of a 1988 zoning letter and supposed past agreements to close the quarry.


ES-CA, through its Land Use Protection Trust, saw a pending settlement as too lenient and was allowed by a district court judge to join in the lawsuit. While the 800-acre pit continues to grow to the grief of its neighbors, it is to close with the land reclaimed by early in 2027.


ES-CA and the Las Placitas Association also have been deeply involved in trying to keep gravel mining from expanding onto federals lands in Placitas. Their main target is the Bureau of Land Management Buffalo Tract, 3,127 acres adjacent to the Vulcan Baca quarry in northwest Placitas.


A congressional bill to withdraw the BLM lands from mining seemed near passage but died at the last moment in December scuttled by Republican opposition. The bill has been reintroduced, and the two groups and the congressional delegation have been pressing the Department of the Interior for a temporary administrative withdrawal while waiting for Congress to enact a permanent ban.


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