Business & economy, Local government

County court rules in favor of local developer seeking to add gravel pit to land inventory

VALE – The Malheur County Court has approved a move by a local developer to add a parcel of land to the county’s inventory of natural resources as a step towards a new gravel pit.

The decision on Wednesday, April 12, by the court is the latest chapter in a long clash between local developer Darren Lee and a group of homeowners north of Ontario.

The county court decided to designate 80 acres along Jasmine Slope as a gravel site. The ruling by Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Ron Jacobs and Jim Mendiola does not mean Lee can begin hauling rock from the quarry.

“It recognizes it as a gravel site, that gravel is on the property. No one has a permit to mine it right now,” said Tatiana Burgess, Malheur County planning director.

The 80 acres is adjacent to Mesquite Road and owned by local farmer Dallas Head.

In February, the Malheur Count Planning Commission denied an application by Lee to open an 80-acre gravel pit off of Mesquite Road.The court decision was made after two public hearings where a group of half a dozen or more residents voiced opposition to Lee’s request. Neighbors near the 80 acres voiced concerns about wells running dry, noise, dust and asserted Lee’s paperwork and soil testing procedures were inadequate.

However, the county court’s decision was based on a very narrow set of criteria, such as the quality and quantity of the soil and gravel and its location.

How the decision will impact Lee’s overall goal to pull gravel from the acreage remains to be seen because, as of now, he is barred by the state from any mining activity in the area.

He remains under a suspension order from the state Department of Geology of Mineral Industries to cease mining that was issued in March 2023. The agency notified Lee it had received “multiple complaints” Lee’s company, 4 Lees Excavation, was mining without a permit.

The state notified Lee last March that he needed to take corrective measures for work he had done previously at the site. He was required to knock down dirt berms, remove a new road and fill test pits “and any other surface disturbance conducted for exploration or in preparation for mining.”
Lee then sought an informal review of the order by the State Geologist Ruarri Day-Stirrat. Stirrat informed Lee in a March 31 letter he supported the suspension order.

In April, Lee’s attorney, Brian Sheets, asked the state to clarify the requirements for restoration at the Jasmine Road site. The state responded in a June 22 letter that Lee needed to restore the area, including “revegetation with the pre-existing cover crop, and revegetation with native species to a similar density and composition of surrounding vegetation.”
The state extended the deadline for finishing the work to Sept. 30.

But very little of that work was completed, according to the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. Alex Lopez, department spokesperson, said in January the agency sought documentation that the restoration work was complete in December. He said neither Sheets or Lees responded.

In March, Lopez said Lee still had not furnished the agency with any evidence that he completed the required restoration work.

Lopez said the agency reached out to Sheets again on March 28 for an update.

“We received a response that same day assuring the department that he would get an update after conferring with Mr. Lee. We have not heard anything else from Mr. Lee or his counsel since that time,” Lopez wrote in an email last week.

Lee initially sought to create a 54-acre gravel pit on Head’s property in 2021. But the planning commission rebuffed Lee’s request to add the gravel pit to the county’s comprehensive land use plan through a conditional-use permit.

Despite the planning commission denial, Lee engaged in work to prepare the rock quarry, according to state records.

In August 2023, Lee again applied for county authorization to open an 80-acre gravel pit off of Mesquite Road. The county deemed that application to be incomplete but a revised version was accepted in December.

The commission denied Lee’s application to open the 80-acre gravel pit off of Mesquite Road for a host of reason, among them inadequate provisions to address potential dust and noise issues and impacts to existing agriculture production in the area.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage

Local contractor’s bid to create gravel pit outside Ontario squashed

Residents, contractor in renewed fight over rural gravel quarry on Jasmine Slope

Local contractor seeks to reopen shuttered rock quarry north of Ontario

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