Janet and Lee Walth, along with several of their neighbors, can’t understand why one resident along craggy Brooks Road on the West Plains needs to mine on his property.
“This is where the war started,” said Janet Walth earlier this month, standing on the property she and her husband call “their little slice of paradise” and pointing at an overgrown trailhead that had once been proposed as an easement to Ronald Calhoon’s property.
This week, Spokane County commisisoners will decide if Calhoon’s 78 acres should be reclassified from farmland to possessing valuable minerals. The move, fought by most of the landowners along the primitive gravel road west of Riverside State Park and Nine Mile Falls, would ease Calhoon’s regulatory burden in obtaining a future mining permit on his land.
The neighbors, who testified against the project at length at a hearing before commissioners in April, say the reclassification would add heavy rumbling trucks to a road that can’t handle the burden, and force waterfowl and wildlife from the forested wetlands in the area. But Don Howell, a retired real estate agent representing Calhoon, said those concerns are being expressed too early, and what is before the commissioners is an attempt to correct faulty land designations made 14 years ago.
“Mr. Calhoon doesn’t have topsoil that meets agricultural needs,” Howell said. “Mr. Calhoon is in there before the commissioners for a singular purpose, which is to reclassify his property for a use that can be more appropriate to the conditions on his ground.”
County staff testified at the April hearing that Calhoon’s property was not thoroughly vetted for farming suitability when zone designations were put in place following the passage of state legislation more than a decade ago.
“When we adopted the zoning codes in 2001, there was not a site-specific analysis of every individual property,” John Pederson, the county’s planning director, said. “There was a very broad-brush approach of designating areas large-tract agricultural.”
Those living close to Calhoon disputed findings from the Spokane Conservation District that soils in the area couldn’t support less disruptive uses.
“I have about 86 acres of land, that I raise horses on,” said Roger Koepke, Calhoon’s neighbor to the immediate south. “I’ve been waiting quite a few years to establish a good breeding and training facility, but with this rock movement, hauling logs, I’m kind of iffy about building good facilties and then nobody comes to use it.”
Koepke’s concerns prompted Spokane County Hearing Examiner Mike Dempsey in November 2014 to deny a previous request from Calhoon to mine on the property. Dempsey ruled that Calhoon had not received approval from all neighbors within 1,000 feet, a requirement to mine on land zoned for farming. Changing the land’s designation would eliminate the need to receive waivers from adjacent landowners in a future application to mine on the property.
The Walths said they’ve hosted rescued deer on their property, which is just to the east of Koepke and Calhoon, and raised bees. They expressed concern about multiple ponds in the area that sit just below the bluff where Calhoon would harvest basalt.
“It’s not like it’s all rock,” said Lee Walth.
Representatives from the Department of Ecology have not been called out to the property because no specific mining permits have been filed with the county, said Brook Beeler, a spokeswoman for the agency. The Spokane Audobon Society opposes the project.
If commissioners approve the land reclassification, it wouldn’t give Calhoon the ability to begin mining overnight. He’d have to submit a new application and again go before Dempsey to demonstrate the mining that would occur on his land conforms to county standards, though the bar would be lower because of the new classification. At that point, neighbors would be able to weigh in on plan specifics, Calhoon representative Howell said.
Commissioner Al French, who represents the West Plains community where Calhoon is seeking to mine, said residents “clearly raised some very legitimate issues” at the April hearing. But commissioners have not yet met to discuss where they stand on the land classification issue, he said in an interview earlier this month.
During testimony, Commissioner Nancy McLaughlin asked if there would be protection for private wells in the area if Calhoon is allowed to mine.
“What if somebody’s well stops functioning, and how do they prove that?” McLaughlin asked.
“That’s really more of a civil issue amongst those individual property owners,” Pederson answered, saying there were many factors that could lead to well failure outside of mining, and a cause would have to be legally proven for damages to occur.
The Walths and other neighbors are concerned the county may approve the project to buy crushed rock from Calhoon at the new site. French and Mitch Reister, the county’s head engineer, said buying rock from Calhoon had not been discussed.
“We have a couple existing pits within a couple miles, and that area abounds with mineral resources – there are far more advantageous locations to pursue if we needed them,” Reister wrote in an email.
Calhoon, who has filed multiple times for bankruptcy, testified at the April hearing that he was being targeted by neighbors who misunderstood his plans for his property.
“I really don’t understand what all the hullaballo is about here,” Calhoon said. “I’m not blasting, I never had any intentions of it. I’m not going to blast a thing.”
The Walths said the dispute had caused fissures in the neighborhood, and they were hopeful for a resolution that keeps the nature of their community intact.
“We’re not getting heard at all,” said Janet Walth. “We’re getting shut down.”
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