New county site near Methow would save money, officials say
Okanogan County staff got an earful from people in the town of Methow who say that a gravel pit above town would expose their community to noise and harmful dust. But others at last week’s meeting said the county’s plans for a gravel pit are preferable to lots of new houses.
There was little dispute about the need for a new source for rock and sand for the county to maintain roads from Mazama to Brewster. But most people don’t want to live near it.
County Commissioner Andy Hover, Planning Director Perry Huston, and Road Maintenance Manager Gary George made the trek to the Methow Community Center on Wednesday night (June 26) to explain a proposal to spend $1 million to buy 540 acres near Methow for a gravel pit.
The county has been searching for a new pit site for more than a year because the two existing pits in the Methow Valley are depleted, said George. “If this site doesn’t work out, we’ll have to start over. We have no choice but to find something,” he said.
The county last crushed gravel at its pit on Twin Lakes Road six years ago and there is no rock left — just a few small stockpiles. The other pit, on the Twisp-Winthrop East County Road, is also out of gravel, said George.
The county’s central pit outside Okanogan is nearing the end of its productive life, with enough rock for two or three more crushings over 10 to 15 years, said George. If the county continues to use that site to supply the Methow Valley, crushings will need to be more frequent.
So George was encouraged when the county found land for sale north of Methow, west of state Highway 153 off Danzl Road. Test pits on a high bench found gravel to a depth of at least 20 feet. That would supply 1.6 million tons of gravel, enough for a minimum of 75 years, he said.
“The cold, hard truth is, it has to be in somebody’s back yard eventually. Roads won’t be fixed without it, and they won’t be sanded in the winter,” said George.
Because the county needs only 149 acres for the gravel pit, Hover contacted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to see if the agency might be interested in buying the remainder of the property for wildlife habitat and public access.
WDFW officials showed interest, but they would need to wait two years for the next grant cycle to pursue funding, said Hover. George said the county and state have agreed to a per-acre price that puts the value of the 391 acres at about $725,000.
The pit can’t go ahead without a conditional-use permit from the county’s hearing examiner. “That’s one of the conditions of the purchase and sale agreement. [Without the permit], we won’t buy it,” said Hover.
The pit proposal will also have public-comment period and an environmental review.
Crushing every five years
Production at the proposed pit near Methow would follow the county’s standard cycle, with gravel being crushed once every five years. That includes one week to set up equipment, two weeks for actual crushing, and one week to demobilize the equipment, said George.
Rock and gravel would be stockpiled on site and transported three times a year — one week in May and one in July, for road work; and two to three days in October to bring sand to county shops near Winthrop and in Brewster for winter road maintenance.
Gravel would be scooped out of a flat area, not blasted out of hillsides, said George. Topsoil would be removed from the area prior to crushing and set aside for reclamation. All gravel pits are required to have a reclamation and revegetation plan.
George compared the costs of the proposed pit in Methow, the central pit in Okanogan, and a commercial pit in Pateros to chip seal the Twisp-Winthrop East County Road.
Chip sealing the road would take 20 truckloads of rock — eight round trips per truck. From the pit in Methow, the work could be completed in one day for $21,000, for labor, transport and materials. From the central pit in Okanogan, it would take one and a quarter days and cost $25,300. To use gravel from the commercial pit in Pateros, it would take one and a half days and cost $41,500, said George.
Even if the county didn’t sell the excess land to WDFW, getting gravel from the Methow site would be cheaper than the other options, said Hover.
The cost of hiring a contractor every five years for the crushing is $300,000 to $350,000, said George.
The county estimates $37,000 to improve and widen Danzl Road. They would add a parking lot for access to state and federal land, said George.
People at last week’s meeting in Methow were worried about health effects of dust and silica from the gravel, noise and vibration from crushing, and the potential for destabilizing the hillside. They wondered whether state Route 153 and its bridges could accommodate heavy truck traffic.
Some residents are concerned the pit would be an eyesore. While the pit wouldn’t be visible from the valley floor, it would be visible from a high vantage point, said George.
One woman who brought her young children to the meeting told the county officials — with visible emotion — that she was so concerned about the health impacts of a gravel pit that she might have to leave the area.
Area residents presented Hover with a petition, signed by 18 people, asking the county to abandon efforts to buy land for the pit. “Not only will this destroy the beautiful valley views, the noise will echo loudly through the Methow Valley disturbing everyone and the wildlife,” said the petition. “There are better places to put the gravel pit.”
But many residents seemed reassured when they learned that rock crushing would take place only two weeks out of every five years.
“I guess the option would be to see 100 houses instead,” said one community member, drawing a resounding “amen.” The 540 acres could accommodate about 14 houses, based on water availability, said Hover.
Some said they’re more concerned about dust kicked up by off-road vehicles. Others said health effects from pesticides applied in orchards are worse than dust.
At the end of the meeting, Hover asked for a show of hands to see how many people were dead set against the gravel pit and how many want the county to go ahead with a feasibility study. Not everyone voted, but the split was fairly even.
Public hearing on gravel pit
The county commissioners are holding a study session and public hearing about whether to purchase the four parcels on Monday (July 8) from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in the commissioners’ auditorium in Okanogan.
People can provide up to five minutes of verbal testimony at the hearing. They can also submit written comments at the hearing or in advance to Laleña Johns at email@example.com.
The parcels are all owned by Claude Miller. Total appraisal by the Okanogan County assessor for all four parcels is $434,500, including a pole barn valued at $24,600. The land is used primarily for agriculture and total taxable value is $6,500, according to assessor’s records. The land was reduced in value in 2014 after being burned in the Carlton Complex Fire.
Parcel numbers are 3123310006, 3023064004, 3022011005, and 3022120005.
Information about the proposal is on the Planning Department website at www.okanogancounty.org/planning.