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Measure would require rezoning to mine

Two weeks after sand mining proposals for hundreds of rural acres in Baker County were withdrawn to allow more time for regulatory agencies to study the plans, a county commissioner has hatched a plan to stop them permanently.

Commissioner Mark Hartley had planned to introduce an ordinance to prohibit sand mining in agricultural areas at the end of the commission meeting on the evening of September 4. But he decided at the last minute to postpone the matter, saying he needed more time to review the draft ordinance before moving forward with his idea.

“I want to read it over to make sure it’s exactly what we want to do,” he said after the meeting was adjourned shortly before 6 pm.

The county’s present zoning code allows mining operations on lands with agricultural zoning designations by special exception. Mr. Hartley’s proposal, if adopted at a later date, would restrict sand mining to industrial zones only.

The proposed ordinance states that continuing to permit sand mining on agricultural lands, which make up more than half of the county’s total acreage excluding national forest land, is not in compliance with the county’s comprehensive, long-range planning mission.

The document further calls for “an absolute prohibition against sand mining on any property with an Agricultural (AG) zoning designation…” and concludes that such a policy would be “in the best interest of Baker County and its citizens.”

The following language, under Amendment of the Baker County Land Development Regulations, contains the legislative intent:

“Sand mining on parcels of real property with Agricultural (AG) zoning designations shall not be permitted nor shall special exceptions be granted for the purpose of conducting sand mining on parcels of real property with Agricultural zoning designations.

“The (Zoning) Board of Adjustment, the Local Planning Authority and the Planning Director shall not have the authority to consider or take action upon requests or applications for special exception applications made for the purpose of conducting sand mining on parcels of real property with Agricultural (AG) zoning designations.”

During a crowded commission meeting held in a large courtroom at the county courthouse on August 20, Old Castle Southern Group and E.R. Jahna Inc. withdrew  zoning exception applications to allow more time for review of their plans by state regulatory agencies and a consultant for the county. The withdrawal request came nearly an hour before the commission was scheduled to begin a public hearing on the mining proposals.

Some speculated that the companies made the move because they sensed that the outcome might not be to their liking. Public opposition to the mining plans has become increasingly hostile, with many calling for the county to scuttle the proposals immediately.

Commissioner Hartley had announced his opposition to the mining plans months ago and on September 3 he said he felt it was time to make his move.

“I thought this might be something we might want to look at more closely,” he said, adding that sand mining would be detrimental to the environment and the public welfare, would compromise public safety by adding hundreds of dump trucks to narrow county roads every day and result in little economic benefit to the county.

“I just can’t see that it would be good,” he said.

By removing the special exception for mining companies in agricultural areas, the companies would have to seek a rezoning. Mr. Hartley said that’s the way it should be because getting large tracts of land rezoned is not as easy as simply applying for a special zoning exception.

Ed Preston, the county’s planning and zoning director, said removing the special exception provision for the mining companies could make their objective much more difficult.

“The Land Development Regulations allow mining to take place in the Industrial Zoning category,” Mr. Preston said. “If they (Old Castle and Jahna Inc.) wanted to come back and do some sand mining they would have to rezone the property to industrial. It doesn’t preclude them altogether from coming back.”

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