Within the next few months, the state Mined Land Reclamation Board is expected to consider Transit Mix Concrete’s application for a quarry permit on a portion of the 1,200-acre historic Hitch Rack Ranch just south of Colorado Springs on Highway 115.
This is the second quarry permit application that the company, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Continental Materials, has filed for the property. The first was denied by the MLRB, despite staff recommendations for approval.
The amended application seeks to address issues cited by the board and quarry opponents, including access, wildlife impacts and water quality. That hasn’t mollified previous objectors, including residents of surrounding neighborhoods, adjacent property owners, environmentalists and national conservation advocates. Opponents may also benefit from the outspoken support of Bill Hybl, the chairman and CEO of the El Pomar Foundation, as well as the support of the foundation.
Hybl’s opposition to the quarry project is partially driven by El Pomar’s involvement with the Harold Ingersoll estate. Ingersoll’s 2015 will provides that the Ingersoll Ranch be deeded to the Foundation and preserved as undeveloped land. The ranch, together with Audubon Colorado’s Aiken Canyon preserve and the Hitch Rack Ranch, are said to constitute an intact and irreplaceable Front Range ecosystem.
It’s rare — maybe even unprecedented — for Hybl to take such a public stand. He has long preferred to stay out of the spotlight, work quietly behind the scenes and use his clout to shape outcomes.
“I’m working very hard on this,” he said. “If [the quarry] is permitted, it’ll be like Pikeview — here for 100 years. And there are already three quarries operating on 115, so there’s no shortage of aggregate. [The Hitch Rack Ranch] isn’t halfway to Cañon City — it’s next to Colorado Springs.”
As the CSBJ reported earlier this year, “Transit Mix’s 2016 application faced opposition from the conservancy, from the trustees of the Ingersoll estate, from homeowners and homeowners associations along Highway 115 and from other concerned parties. Neighbors formed The Highway 115 Citizens Advisory Committee, a grassroots group that had weekly meetings for six months, preparing for multiple hearings on the quarry proposal.
“The opponents faced an uphill battle. The State Land Board, which owns the mineral rights beneath the Hitch Rack Ranch, already issued a mineral lease to the company, giving it the right to explore and develop construction materials beneath the property. Subsequently, the staff of the Division of Mined Reclamation recommended approval of the mining plan.”
After a lengthy, contentious hearing the board denied Transit Mix’s application. Stunned and dismayed, the company promptly appealed.
“The only ‘evidence’ offered by the objectors is that they simply do not want another quarry nearby, despite ample evidence in the application that the quarry will meet and exceed all statutory and regulatory requirements to minimize impact on the surrounding area,” according to a motion filed by Transit Mix’s attorney, Hogan Lovells. “That is simply not the standard for the decision under the mineral resources statute which created the board as recognized by DRMS.”
The Judicial Review is in process. Transit Mix filed its initial brief. The Colorado Attorney General (representing the MLRB), Steve Mulliken (Ingersoll) and others have filed their responding or opposing briefs. Transit Mix can submit rebuttal briefs. The Administrative Law Judge can then set oral arguments or simply rule, but there’s no time constraint.
Preparing for battle
Meanwhile, both Transit Mix and quarry opponents have been preparing for battle over the new permit application. During the last two years, the company has worked with veteran Republican political operatives Steve Durham and Daniel Cole as well as former El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg (who is no longer involved in the project). Cole has since moved on to become communications director for the state Republican Party, but not before executing a strategy to get local elected officials to endorse the quarry project.
Transit Mix has offered to close and move two batch plants (Costilla Street and North Nevada Avenue) and accelerate the closure of two existing quarries (Black Canyon and Pikeview) if granted a permit to open a quarry at Hitch Rack Ranch. Delighted by the prospect of getting rid of four sprawling, unsightly land uses in or near central Colorado Springs, six city councilors (President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler and councilmembers Merv Bennett, Tom Strand, Don Knight, David Geislinger and Andy Pico) declared their support for the deal, as did five state legislators: Sen. Kent Lambert (SD 9), Rep. Dan Nordberg (HD 14), Rep. Dave Williams (HD 15), Rep. Larry Liston (HD 16) and Rep. Paul Lundeen (HD 19).
Quarry opponents denounced the “four for one” proposal as a disingenuous scam, noting that the Black Canyon and Pikeview quarries have not been operational for some time. While theoretically open, opponents claim that the company only classifies them as open to avoid beginning the expensive process of closure, revegetation and restoration, and that the prospective permanent closure of the batch plants would be a result of increasing property values and easier access to aggregate from existing sources.
On Oct. 3, Transit Mix submitted a 190-page permit application package to the state. Public comments/objections could be filed until Dec. 21.
The unofficial tally so far: 136 letters in favor of the permit, 567 opposed.
Many of those opposed filed lengthy, carefully drafted statements explaining their position. Audubon Rockies, the owner of the Aiken Canyon Preserve, was one of them.
“Given the ecological importance of this area, the growing development pressures already in the area, and the irreparable harm that could be done to the area’s well-documented sensitive habitat and wildlife species,” the organization stated, “Audubon Rockies is strongly opposed to Transit Mix Concrete’s Application for a Quarry.”
Anti-quarry activist and nearby resident Warren Dean wrote, “Colorado Springs already has the reputation that it doesn’t value or steward its natural environment and surroundings. However, as we have seen more now than ever, highly educated young people looking to move to our area consider our immediate natural environment and its proximity to housing and work as one of the area’s strongest attractions. Thus, if we are trying to draw these people here, we need to maximize our assets, and not destroy them with mines that can otherwise be located with minimum impact.
“Of note, there is no gravel emergency and in fact our region has billions of tons of reserves under permit and ready to mine.
“Once a large mine is approved and starts tearing up our back yard, there is no turning back. So, why would we make the same mistake as in the past and add scars to one of our greatest assets, our viewscape?”
The company and its supporters argue that the new application fully addresses the technical, environmental and access concerns voiced by the board in rejecting the previous application.
Many of the letters in support of the project, including those from elected officials, appear to have been wholly or partially composed by Transit Mix representatives, and embody company talking points.
Many identical letters bearing signatures of different company employees were received before the cutoff date. The letter identified the signatories as Transit Mix employees, and stressed that the company employs more than 200 people in the Pikes Peak region — jobs that might be threatened if the quarry isn’t approved.
Letters from state representatives Paul Lundeen and Larry Liston differed from those sent by TM employees. Yet those two letters were identical and reiterated the company’s “four for one” pledge, claiming that denying the permit would cause aggregate price increases that would affect housing and infrastructure costs.
City Councilor Don Knight noted that “Colorado Springs and the people of Council District 1 have been proud to host Transit Mix’s Batch Plant and have the Pike View Quarry on our western border for 112 years … but change comes to everyone and everything.”
Opponents of the quarry won round one a year ago. Will they prevail again?
It’s anyone’s guess, but having Bill Hybl on their side won’t hurt.