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Meadow Lakes residents take Mat-Su Assembly to task over gravel pit

Zaz Hollander
The Mat-Su Borough shut down the B&E Construction gravel pit in the Meadow Lakes area after it was found to be operating without a permit on June 13. Marc Lester

PALMER -- Frustrated Meadow Lakes residents lashed out at the Mat-Su Borough Assembly on Wednesday night for lax treatment of a company that operated a gravel pit and debris dump on North Pittman Road for years without permits.

B&E Construction was four days into the $2.9 million Machen Road extension project along the Parks Highway in mid-June when a borough officer discovered the company’s gravel permit expired in 2010 and shut the operation down, delaying the road work.The officer was at the site because state and borough officials in April halted a construction and demolition dump that B&E had operated without a permit since 2008 despite several complaints from nearby residents.

Before the extent of the permit problems came to light in recent media reports, however, the Assembly at a June 17 meeting unofficially directed staff to streamline the gravel permit that B&E needed to let the road project continue after company officers asked for help.

Assembly member Darcie Salmon wanted borough staff to let the company get back to work right away as a new permit worked through the system, but that suggestion was nixed by the borough attorney.

“This needs to be done as expeditiously as possible,” Salmon said at the June meeting.

Planning staff that night said they had worked out an agreement with B&E to process the permit in 17 days, including a required 15-day public notification time, even though the application the company turned in wasn’t complete.

“Seventeen days would be sort of a record for us,” planner Alex Strawn told the Assembly at the time. Prioritizing the B&E permit would mean one staffer dropping everything else despite the busiest permit season Strawn said he’d ever seen.

“Some of those (permits) will be pushed aside as we go forward with this but we certainly can expedite this,” he said. “Seventeen days -- that’s the bare bones that we can possibly do.”

No Assembly members objected to Mayor Larry DeVilbiss’ suggestion that the acting manager work with the planning director to “expedite” the permit. 

But on Wednesday, a small but vocal group of B&E neighbors at an otherwise sparsely attended Assembly meeting cried foul about potential threats to drinking water wells and property values -- and slammed the borough for not cracking down harder on B&E.

“It establishes a very bad precedent to give a free pass to a company that has so blatantly violated borough regulations,” Meadow Lakes resident Patricia Fisher told the group.  

“We do not want B&E’s gravel (pit) slash dump to continue,” pit neighbor Natasha Pope said, her husband and young son sitting nearby. The company has “continually demonstrated total disregard for its neighbors as well as the jurisdiction which oversees it.”

Co-owners John Emmi and Steve Bargabos have said regulators told them they didn’t need a permit for the dump and they thought they had a 10-year permit for the gravel pit. B&E has applied for an administrative gravel permit to remove 100,000 cubic yards of material. The company expects 200 to 240 trucks per day in and out of the site, according to its application.

Borough planners are still reviewing the administrative gravel extraction permit application but the pit appears to meet borough specifications, Strawn said recently. He expected to approve the permit on July 8 after a public comment deadline closes, though he might need to add conditions to reflect public concerns that same day. He expected a late night. 

B&E has also applied for borough and state permits to operate the debris dump.

A 2006 complaint that the company had started a gravel pit without a permit led to twin $500 fines that were waived when B&E applied for a short-term gravel permit the next year, borough officials have said.

Responding to the audience’s outrage Wednesday, some Assembly members said they were rethinking their stance on the company and wondered if other gravel companies could supply the road project.

Assembly member Vern Halter, who represents the Meadow Lakes area, said the situation called into question B&E’s integrity, noting the company just applied for a borough business license in June.

Halter said he didn’t want the administrative permit approved but instead favored a more thorough conditional-use permit process.

“I’m just flat not for it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right you pick up junk or garbage, and then you get a permit later to have a garbage dump. That’s backwards too to me. So it’s kind of a mess, I know.”

But Assembly member Ron Arvin bristled at audience suggestions the borough was being too soft on the company, at one point seeming to contradict the unofficial directive last month.  

Arvin pointed out the gravel pit and debris dump are under two different permitting processes and the Assembly gave borough administrators clear direction to follow code.

“There’s been some comments that this particular operation is getting some kind of a pass or that the process is being expedited because Machen Road is a borough project,” he said. “That’s not happening, just to let you know that.”