The first time the Old Hazeldell Quarry was proposed to the Lane County Board of Commissioners, there was a conservative majority leading the governing body.
Five years and three new commissioners later, the board is once again deciding whether to OK the permit for the project backed by Ed King of King Estate. The board is limited in its ability to deny the permit, but in the past few weeks the majority of public comments have been calling on the commissioners to axe the quarry project, especially given the city of Oakridge’s investment in tourism.
Residents in Oakridge are concerned the quarry could have a negative impact on air quality and traffic.
“We will be left, a small mountain town community, with a quarry on the city limits border and nothing to show for it,” Oakridge Mayor Kathy Holston tells Eugene Weekly. “And our tourism will suffer.”
In 2015 Lane County commissioners approved an application for a quarry on TV Butte, but in 2018 the Land Use Board of Appeals remanded the project back to the county. In December 2018, as two lame duck pro-development commissioners ended their terms, the board approved the application. The application again went to LUBA, which then sent the project back to Lane County in 2019. At the most recent May 4 meeting, the board voted 4-0 to close public comments and have a fourth reading at an Aug. 3 afternoon meeting.
The most current LUBA remand points to several issues, including incorrect acreage size, big game impacts and air quality. The county is limited in its decision to the specific LUBA issues LUBA ruled that during operations, the Old Hazeldell Quarry would release silica dioxide, which would be a health hazard. A consultant hired by the quarry’s applicant suggests three methods to offset the amount of silica dioxide in the air, according to Lane County meeting materials: using dust collection systems on rock drills, delaying blasting when winds go above 25 miles per hour and spraying water on aggregate trucks leaving the quarry.
Phil Donovan, a spokesperson for the quarry, tells EW that the board has approved the application twice because all communities need aggregate to maintain roads, trails and homes, and it can operate without adversely impacting the community. If the board decides to reject the quarry application, he says the applicant will seek appropriate remedy.
But residents still oppose the project.
On April 29, the Oakridge City Council voted unanimously to oppose the quarry, a change from two years ago when councilors voted neither to support or oppose it, says Holston, who opposed the project from the start. The councilors shifted their views after the quarry’s proposed jobs went from 25 to 50 good paying jobs to five minimum wage jobs, she says.
“The disadvantages far outweigh the advantages of a couple jobs, which is one of the reasons why council opposed it,” she adds. “One of the stronger economic drivers has been tourism, and it has taken a number of years for the city of Oakridge to embrace that fact because tourism is such a seasonal type of thing.”
Holston says that if the quarry would bring 75 to 100 jobs, she’d ponder whether to support it. But a handful of minimum wage jobs at the quarry aren’t worth eliminating the sustainable tourist-related jobs the town has, she adds.
Mayor Melody Cornelius of Westfir, a small community close to Oakridge, said during the comments period of the May 4 commission meeting that the Westfir City Council unanimously voiced “strong opposition to the land use changes requested by Old Hazeldell Quarry,” which would negatively affect Westfir and its tourism. Westfir is surrounded by the Willamette National Forest.
In email testimony to the county, Oregon Timber Trail Executive Director Gabriel Tiller said mountain biking drives economic benefits in Oakridge. Citing a 2014 study by the University of Oregon, he said mountain biking generates $2.3 million to $4.9 million annually.
Tiller tells EW that mountain bikers spend money at restaurants and lodging in town since the nearest trailhead for the Bunchgrass Trail is about three miles away. But if approved, the quarry could be “visual pollution” for trail users. Newcomer mountain bikers might not know there’s a quarry, he says, but the amount of dust from the quarry settling on the trail, impacting vegetation and views could keep them from returning.
Holston adds that Lane County, whose own commission is deciding whether to OK the project, has been an advocate for the city’s tourism-based economy. “They’re the ones who gave us the moniker of ‘Mountain Bike Capital of the Northwest’ and actively promoted it for us,” she says. “This quarry would reverse all those years, all that money that Lane County has already spent and put into Oakridge and give us nothing in return.”
Holston says she’s heard from tourists that one of the downsides to the area is the highway traffic, and if the quarry is approved, there will be an increase of trucks carrying gravel from the quarry. “Add 10 to 20 gravel trucks daily, and people will say they won’t go there anymore,” she adds.
Donovan says the quarry will benefit the community with good jobs and a product to maintain roads and bike trails in the forests surrounding the town. And the quarry applicants have shown their goodwill by helping outfit teh high school women’s basketball team with new uniforms.
Oakridge resident and business owner Michelle Emmons says she hopes the county commision will ask for an economic and environmental impact analysis to gather more information since the town doesn’t need gravel from a new mine for roads or trails.
In addition to owning a small business in Oakridge, Emmons is also the south valley advocate for Willamette Riverkeeper. She says if the quarry requires water to wet dust gravel loads to prevent silica dust, it’ll stretch water resources in an area where residents are already rationing. And she says the area already suffers from air quality problems during wildfire seasons and in colder periods when low-income residents use wood burning stoves.
“COVID definitely forced people to think about how they’re spending time outside of their computer screens. It was a big year for us last year. A lot of folks recognized how important the recreation economy was,” Emmons says. “To have something like this come up again, it’s devastating to think about what the effects will be.”
The Lane County Board of County Commissioners plan to discuss the quarry again 1:30 pm Tuesday, Aug. 3. Visit LaneCountyOr.gov to access the virtual meeting.