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State board rejects application for proposed quarry in El Paso County

April 26, 2018 Updated: April 27, 2018 at 12:18 pm
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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)

The state mining board on Thursday again denied a local concrete company's request to mine a rugged patch of land in southwestern El Paso County, saying the company failed to prove a quarry wouldn't do irreversible damage to drinking water.

The Mined Land Reclamation Board voted 3 to 2 to deny Transit Mix Concrete's application for a permit for the proposed Hitch Rack Ranch quarry following more than 10 hours of testimony at a two-day hearing in Colorado Springs.

The decision is a major blow for the company and a victory for nearby residents and environmental groups, who have argued the proposed quarry off Colorado 115 could threaten the area's groundwater and wildlife habitat, including that of the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

"It's a relief," said Kristan Rigdon, a spokeswoman for a group of residents who live near the proposed quarry. "We respected the process. We presented our case anchored in expert testimony. ... That was the only path that we had to win. And we did."

It's unclear, though, if this is the end of Transit Mix's more than two-year quest to build the quarry.

"Obviously we are disappointed," Daniel Cole, a spokesman for Transit Mix, told The Gazette. "We're going to take some time to consider the decision." He declined to elaborate.

The state's Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety allows applicants to ask for reconsideration, and the courts may offer other avenues for the company.

Driven by concerns that mining could disrupt the fragile underground system of rock cracks that holds the area's water supply, board members John Singletary, Jill Van Noord and Bob Randall voted to deny the application. During deliberations ahead of the vote, Randall said there were no guarantees that mining wouldn't impact groundwater that supplies residents' wells and those impacts could "be difficult to minimize."

Karin Utterback-Normann and Forrest Luke voted to approve the application, saying that they believe Transit Mix met or exceeded state requirements related to assessing the quarry's potential effects.

Lauren Duncan and Tom Brubaker recused themselves from the decision.

After the board's vote, opponents shook hands and hugged one another.

"We hope this ends it," Steve Mulliken, an attorney who represents at least one opponent, told The Gazette.

Transit Mix initially applied for a permit from the state in 2016. The board rejected that by the same vote as it did the second, 3-2, citing some of the concerns raised by neighboring residents - the threat to water and wildlife habitat.

The state board also found that the company hadn't proved it had the legal right to access Little Turkey Creek Road, which serves as the only access for a group of residents.

After the board denied its first application, Transit Mix filed a petition for reconsideration to the state Mining Division, arguing that opponents improperly presented new evidence at the application hearing.

The company later withdrew that petition and filed another, with the 4th Judicial District Court in Colorado Springs, asking a judge to review the board's decision. The board, as well as more than 90 individuals and organizations who objected to the initial proposal, were named as defendants.

Quarry foes have called the lawsuit an attempt by Transit Mix to intimidate opponents and scare them into silence.

Earlier this month, Transit Mix attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Liz Titus, an attorney representing Transit Mix, testified that the company wanted to avoid the "procedural quagmire" that might occur if the board approved its second application, but the court invalidated the board's denial of its first application.

Transit Mix submitted a second application to the state in the fall, reducing the size and life of the proposed quarry and moving the operation south of Little Turkey Creek Road.

More than 500 letters of objection and about 150 letters of support were filed with the state's Mining Diviison, which recommended that the board approve the application.

Project opponents include the El Pomar Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, which manages the Aiken Canyon Preserve neighboring the quarry site. Both organizations have been deeded pieces of land along the quarry's proposed boundaries that are destined to one day become preservation areas.

The company publicized new offers in exchange for approval of the quarry, winning endorsements from several Colorado Springs City Council members and state legislators. Transit Mix said it would close and reclaim the Pikeview Quarry, an unsightly scar on the foothills of northwest Colorado Springs, if it was able to open the new mine. The company also announced earlier this month that, if it got permission to mine the Hitch Rack Ranch, it would sell the Pikeview property to the city at a discounted rate so that a "world-class" mountain bike park could be built on the land.

When asked about the bike park proposal on Thursday, Cole said: "Pikeview has another 10 to 20 years of life left, and there's no indication that Transit Mix would close it without another source of aggregate."

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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