Residents protest Willard gravel pit plan
WILLARD — More than 30 residents packed the city council chambers Thursday night to politely tell city fathers, “Don’t do it.”
The number sounds paltry, but that’s small town America for you, where a group of friends and neighbors can conceivably block plans to gouge out a million tons of gravel from the mountainside overlooking the ol’ hometown.
Thirty-plus upset citizens amount to a voting bloc in a city the size of Willard, where 100 votes can elect a city councilman. Note: 2,000 votes countywide can get you on the Box Elder County Commission, with a $50,000-plus salary package.
But Thursday night, residents were just concerned about plans for a gravel pit on a 170-acre parcel at the mouth of Willard Canyon.
City officials say it’s an economic move to sustain the city’s new sewer system without doubling or tripling the monthly $60 utility fee for the pipes and treatment gear installed just before the 2008 recession hit. Growth projections to sustain the system with connection fees from new homes have not come through with the economic slowdown.
The gravel pit parcel is city-owned property but located just outside the city limits above two existing pits.
The city last week sent a rezone request that would allow gravel extraction there to the Box Elder County Planning Commission, Mayor Kenny Braegger said just before Thursday night’s meeting, noting that several companies are showing interest in buying the 170-acre site for $250,000 or more. That’s almost half the city budget.
“We’re surrounded by gravel pits,” the mayor said, counting five pits encircling the town of roughly 1,800 residents. “I can see three from my house and I live in central Willard. Why shouldn’t we as a city reap some of the benefits?”
Opposition ringleader Clyde Westley thinks the city could get $340,000 for the site, and Thursday night offered that the Nature Conservancy might pay that much for it. The global conservation group buys up land to preserve it in its pristine state.
Westley reached out to media via email and uploaded a call to the “Willard Residents” Facebook page Tuesday for citizens to attend the council meeting, which drew 50 posts in support.
Westley Thursday night challenged the city council to chisel a guarantee on the granite stone Pioneer monument outside City Hall that the city would receive $1 in royalties for every ton of gravel hauled out of the proposed pit.
He and 10 other residents went to the microphone Thursday night to say no to the mayor and city council. No one spoke in favor of the pit proposal.
That included Box Elder County Commissioner Ryan Tingey, a former Willard mayor and city councilman, who said he was only speaking as a private citizen. He advised there were other ways of dealing with the financial pressures of the sewer system.
Tingey said he’s been in contact with state water officials and said they are flexible regarding Willard’s paying off of the state’s financing of the utility. “They’re willing to listen,” and help with grants, Tingey said.
Payments on the bonding for the sewer currently amount to $300,000 a year, city officials said. Tingey also advised the concerned residents on hand to attend the Nov. 20 hearing before the county planning commission on the gravel pit rezone question.
It’s almost guaranteed it will be approved, he said, unless county officials see the significant citizen opposition to the proposal.
“I was drawn to Willard because of the beauty of the mountain,” former Ogden resident David Butts told the council. “It’s one of the few assets the city has … let’s not sell our birthright.”
“We know you guys can’t wait to get started selling gravel off that site, but the citizens don’t want it,” said Dave LaForge.
“I moved here because it’s absolutely beautiful,” said Janis Branca, formerly of West Jordan. ” … we need a solution that doesn’t involve selling our city to the highest bidder.”
“We’re choking on our air already,” said Brandi Leifson.
“I don’t see anyone in this room that I don’t like a lot,” Frank Ipsen noted, in keeping with the calm tone of the entire 90-minute session before the council. The area in question is also important habitat for wildlife, “a last stronghold” for deer and bobcats, bald and golden eagles, in accessing Willard Canyon, he said.
“I don’t want any more trucks going by my house,” Pat Bender announced. “I’m against any more gravel-pit digging or more trucks.”