The Malheur County Court recently turned down a proposal by a local contractor to open up a gravel pit on the Oregon Slope. (The Enterprise/FILE)

VALE – Local contractor Darren Lee wanted to open a new gravel pit north of Ontario but he said he stepped into a bureaucratic maze and encountered a buzzsaw of resistance from local homeowners that effectively derailed his effort after more than nine months of planning.

The Malheur County Court recently rejected his proposal to create the gravel pit on property owned by local farmer Dallas Head on Jasmine and Mesquite Roads on the Oregon Slope southwest of Weiser.

Lee sought a conditional use permit from the county for the 261-acre gravel pit and also sought to add the property to the county’s comprehensive land management plan, a document used by officials to manage growth and natural resources.

A conditional use permit is granted by the county if it decides a specific use – such as a gravel pit – is feasible for the surrounding property.

In July, the Malheur County Planning and Zoning Commission denied Lee’s request to add the gravel pit to the county’s land-use plan and for the permit.

The commission recommended that the county court – the body that makes the final decision  on the land management plan – deny Lee’s request.

County officials say Lee’s application didn’t contain sufficient evidence to be approved.

“The planning commission, they didn’t feel like all the questions were answered. Or they were answered partially, but not well enough and they felt they gave him enough time to provide the information,” said Eric Evans, Malheur County planning director.

Evans said the final decision by the commission came after two four-hour meetings in June and July.

“Bottom line there wasn’t substantial evidence in the record to support the source or the mining of it,” said Evans.

Lee said he worked hard to meet the county requirements and to alleviate the concerns of the homeowners in the area.

Lee said questions from the commission and homeowners about roads, damage to wells, sage grouse habitat, a dirt berm around the property and a protective offset zone between the proposed site and local homes were answered.

“The first meeting we had, it was about Jasmine Road. They wanted me to investigate whether I could make an alternate road. So, I said let me investigate that and yes, I could put in an alternative road,” said Lee.

Lee said he also addressed concerns about wells and loss of sage grouse habitat.

“For one, it is not sage grouse habitat. That was just someone throwing mud against the wall, saying there was sage grouse up there. There are not sage grouse up there,” said Lee.

Lee also said there was no issue with water because he did not intend to drill a well on the property.

“I have my own water resources and I don’t use water in my current operation,” said Lee.

Another issue for homeowners was the offset, or space between the gravel pit and adjoining property.

Lee said the original offset for the property was 100 yards and he agreed to make it 350.

Another question for officials was the size and height of a dirt berm around the property.

A berm is essentially a dirt wall around the perimeter of the mining site. Some area landowners who lived above the mining site were not satisfied with the height of the berm.

“On the third and final meeting, the berm was not adequate. Previously it was agreed the berm was adequate,” said Lee.

Lee, who owns gravel firms in Oregon and Idaho, said he planned to open up the new pit to sell gravel. Lee said an existing gravel pit he owns near Jasmine and Mesquite Roads was also about played out.

Lee said he furnishes gravel to Weiser and recently opened a gravel pit in Idaho.

“Amazingly I had no trouble at all in Idaho,” said Lee.

Lee said he wasn’t sure how much of the 261-acre parcel he would use for the pit.

“You don’t know until you dig,” he said.

During a July 29 Malheur County Court meeting, several local residents voiced concern about the gravel pit.

Michael Hastings said Lee’s plan would damage agriculture.

“Before the court today is one man’s desire to have the county change their minds and allow this exclusive agriculture land to be converted to an aggregate pit. If this were to happen, 10 peaceful homesteads would instantly be considered and labeled conflicts,” said Hastings.

Mandi Hastings said the site of the gravel pit has been farmed for more than 100 years, producing crops such as crusted rye, alfalfa, oat and wheat.

“As such, the site is specifically prohibited from being classified as a significant aggregate source because doing so would result in the potential destruction of more than 35% valuable farm ground,” she said.

Riley Downing told the court that roads were inadequate.

“The property has no means of access suitable for an aggregate mining operation,” said Downing.

Downing said Lee’s plan to create a new access road is “too inadequate and would result in a dangerous situation for local residents.”

Evans said the land isn’t zoned exclusive farm use but is considered range.

Lee said he is confused about the planning and zoning decision.

“If my application was deemed inadequate then why did they have me investigate whether to make a better road or to do the offsets? To me it makes no sense whatsoever,” said Lee.

Lee also said there are already gravel pits – one managed by the state and another one used in the past by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management – in the same area.

“It’s not like I am opening up and doing something different,” said Lee.

Dan Joyce, County judge, said he was satisfied with the decision to deny the gravel pit.

“The planning commission heard it out fully. We appoint the commission and we respect their opinions,” said Joyce.

Lee said he isn’t sure what he will do next. He could appeal the decision on conditional use permit to the county court.

He could also appeal the decision on adding the site to the county’s comprehensive land management plan to the state.

“I believe my neighbors had valid complaints. But the county, the BLM and private people having been hauling off that area for a long time,” said Lee.

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

CORRECTION: The landowner testifying about a proposal gravel pit was Dallas Head. His name was misspelled in an an earlier version of this story. The Enterprise apologizes for the error.

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM - Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for - day in and day out from the Enterprise.