A proposed granite quarry near Colorado Springs that has drawn an army of opposition is closer to becoming a reality.

The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety's recommendation to approve the permit for Transit Mix Concrete's project paved the way for a hearing before the state's Mined Land Reclamation Board, which will make an official decision concerning the permit for the Hitch Rack Quarry.

Both are milestones in a complex process that will - if the project stays on track - eventually include the El Paso County Planning Department and the county commissioners. The sequence could drag well into 2017 before a final decision is made, county spokesman Dave Rose said.

 County project planner Raimere Fitzpatrick said in an email that his department has had "preliminary discussions" about the quarry, but a special use application has not been submitted for a project planned for almost 400 acres off Little Turkey Creek Road west of Colorado 115.

More than 120 people submitted objections to the project during two public input periods, Tony Waldron, a minerals program supervisor with CDRMS, said Thursday. Waldron said projects like this usually receive fewer than 10 official comments before moving forward.

Despite "a lot of objections," the division's recommendation is almost guaranteed approval by the seven-person Reclamation Board, he said.

Research and plans from Transit Mix also were considered before the recommendation was made.

"It won't be rubber stamped," he said. "But it's approved by the board about 99 percent of the time when we make a recommendation to approve."

The hearings before the board are Oct. 26 and 27 at Centennial Hall in downtown Colorado Springs.

Waldron, almost 100 project opponents, Transit Mix representatives and leaders of a citizens' advisory committee opposed to the project attended a pre-hearing conference at Centennial Hall on Wednesday.

It was intended to get input from all sides and set the structure and schedule for the board hearing, Waldron said.

"There was a lot of contention (at the conference)," said Tom Fellows, a spokesman for the citizens' advisory committee.

The CDRMS whittled 60 areas of concern down to five issues that will be the focus of the hearing: quarry operations that include blasting and its effects; impacts on groundwater and hydrologic balance; right of entry and access for residents who use Little Turkey Creek Road to get home; potential adverse impacts on natural resources and wildlife; and Transit Mix's reclamation plan during six phases of mining.

The Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety recommendation said Transit Mix's application satisfies the requirements of the Colorado Land Reclamation Act for the Extraction of Construction Materials.

Fellows joined a geologist for the citizens' committee, the chief of the Southwest Highway 115 Volunteer Fire Department and others in outlining their main objections to the project in late August.

They worry that access into the steep slopes southeast of Pikes Peak will be impeded by the quarry and its operations, delaying critical response in the event of a wildfire or other emergency.

Jerry Moore, the group's geologist, said the nature of the fractured, faulted ground could mean shifts during blasting and potentially cut off residents' wells.

The committee also expects dust and noise pollution and increased truck traffic on the already busy Colorado 115.

The Nature Conservancy of Colorado submitted a letter of objection, noting that the quarry site on the Hitch Rack Ranch is adjacent to "critical habitat" for the Mexican spotted owl, which is on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's list of threatened species.

Transit Mix officials told The Gazette that they are "listening" to the concerns. Company President Jerry Schnabel said he understands that people don't want a quarry "in their backyard" and will do everything possible to make the project positive for all, he said.

Schnabel and Transit Mix hope the Hitch Rack project will allow the company to close its Pikeview Quarry in the mountains northwest of Colorado Springs. Transit Mix estimates it will be able to extract up to 1.5 million tons of granite during the life of the new quarry.

During the hearing Oct. 26 and 27, the CDRMS will present its recommendation, with Waldron expecting the pro and con testimony to last about 10 hours. Then, he said, the board likely will approve the division's recommendation for approval.

Fellows said his citizens' committee will bring its team of scientists, lawyers and strong arguments to the hearing.

"It's possible that some of our expert testimony and the counter arguments may have some sway," Fellows said.

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