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New effort for quarry in southwest El Paso County generates debate

January 8, 2018 Updated: January 9, 2018 at 11:15 am
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The view from U.S. Highway 115 shows the hill, behind the sign, where the Hitch Rack Ranch rock quarry would be built behind. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

A plan for a quarry in southwestern El Paso County that once appeared dead is kicking up more dust than ever.

In the three months since Transit Mix Concrete submitted a second application to mine the Hitch Rack Ranch property following the state's denial of its first request, more than 700 people and organizations have submitted letters commenting on the local company's plan.

On Monday, the El Pomar Foundation became the latest prominent name to join a legion of more than 500 objectors, including environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and National Audubon Society and dozens of area residents who believe the quarry could be detrimental to the local water supply and wildlife.

Transit Mix, which asserts it has addressed the concerns its original proposal sparked by drastically reducing the size of the proposed mine, has redoubled its efforts to win the public's favor. Since filing the revised application, it has recruited scores of supporters - from state legislators and Colorado Springs City Council members to company employees - and promoted its plan to accelerate the closure of another major quarry in the area if it's granted a mining permit for Hitch Rack Ranch.

Community leaders' mounting interests in the proposal signal that battle lines are being drawn in the next chapter of the controversial project, which would impact about 240 acres south of Little Turkey Creek Road off Colorado 115. Colorado's Mined Land Reclamation Board, which voted 3-2 in October 2016 to deny Transit Mix's original permit application, is slated to hear the company's second application on April 25 and 26, according to Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the state's Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

El Pomar's board of trustees, which seldom takes a stance on such issues, voted unanimously to oppose the project at a Monday meeting, said Thayer Tutt, the foundation's vice chairman.

The foundation has been deeded a piece of land along the proposed quarry's boundary that's destined to become a preservation area for a tract of wildlife habitat that's found in few places along the Front Range. Harold "Buck" Ingersoll, who died in 2015, and his wife, Barbara, have gifted about 150 acres of their roughly 290-acre property to the foundation to become a nature center and open space; the remaining land will go to the Nature Conservancy, which manages the neighboring Aiken Canyon Preserve.

"The Ingersolls are giving us the property to preserve and protect for generations to come. We don't believe that having a quarry next door really honors that donor intent," Tutt said.

In denying Transit Mix's initial application, the Mined Land Reclamation Board cited concerns about wildlife and other arguments made by objectors, including that Transit Mix had failed to prove it legally has the right to use a private section of Little Turkey Creek Road and that the project could disturb the fragile network of cracks in underground rock that stores the area's water supply.

The company asked a judge to review the board's decision in a legal complaint filed last January. Though it's submitted another application, Transit Mix has not withdrawn the pending petition for judicial review.

The new application, filed Oct. 5, proposes a smaller quarry site - reduced from roughly 400 acres to about 240 acres, only about 130 of which would be mined. Unlike the original site, which would have included areas north and south of Little Turkey Creek Road, the revised site would be entirely south of the road. The company would also build its own road to the quarry from Colorado 115 instead of using Little Turkey Creek Road, which would still have to be shut down temporarily during blasts.

The proposed lifetime of the quarry has been reduced from 55 years to 40 years; however, in order to mine the space for more than 30 years, the State Land Board would have to approve an extension on Transit Mix's mineral rights lease, said company spokesman Daniel Cole.

Residents say the changes in the second application have not eased their fears.

"They've just reduced the footprint for this particular application," said area resident Tom Fellows, a member of a citizens advisory committee that organized in 2016 to oppose the quarry. "Ultimately they don't plan on doing anything other than what they originally intended to do."

Transit Mix has also introduced what Cole is calling a "4-for-1 deal." If the proposed quarry opens, the company will end operations at the Pikeview Quarry, a prominent scar on the foothills of northwest Colorado Springs, 10 to 20 years ahead of schedule. It would also speed reclamation efforts at the Pikeview Quarry and the Black Canyon Quarry, southwest of the Cedar Heights neighborhood, and shut down its batch plants on North Nevada Avenue and Costilla Street.

Opponents of the proposed quarry have dismissed the deal as obligations repackaged as promises, saying that Transit Mix is already required to end operations and reclaim the existing mines.

During the legally required public comment period that followed after Transit Mix filed its second application, the state received 567 letters of objection and 155 letters of support.

After the company submitted its first application in 2016, roughly 140 people submitted objection letters and no letters of support were filed, Hartman said.

Among those who have submitted letters in favor of the project are the State Land Board, Colorado Springs City Council President Pro-Tem Jill Gaebler and Councilmen Tom Strand, Merv Bennett, Andy Pico, Don Knight and David Geislinger.

State Sen. Kent Lambert and state representatives Dan Nordberg, Dave Williams, Larry Liston and Paul Lundeen - all Republicans from the Colorado Springs area - have also publicly endorsed the project.

State Board of Education members Joyce Rankin and Pam Mazanec, too, have also submitted support letters, citing the more than $20 million the quarry would likely generate over its lifetime in royalty payments for Colorado schools.

The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, which is governed by the Mined Land Reclamation Board, is set to make a recommendation to the board on April 8.

The division recommended that the board approve Transit Mix's first application.

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