An application to the Delta County Board of County Commissioners for a land use change at a former coal load out site north of Paonia is drawing skepticism and criticism from neighbors, who are requesting that that the land be returned to its original state under its current permit.
Mark Levin, with Dumont, Colo.-based Paonia Holdings, LLC, has applied for a land use change to "commercial and light industrial use" under Delta County's Specific Development Regulations, for parcels located at 41322 and 41402 Hwy. 133. The land is currently owned by Bowie Resources, LLC, and was used for coal loading and other mining-related activities beginning in the mid-1970s.
Under its existing permit with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (CDRMS), Bowie Resources is required to return the site to its original state and use after mining operations cease. Levin said the sales contract with Bowie, and release from the permit by the CDRMS, is contingent upon the BoCC's approval of the land use change.
Levin, a 35-year resident of Colorado with more than 25 years of experience in mine consulting, design and construction management, lists several possible uses in the application. Among them: heavy equipment storage and repair and sales of agricultural, mining, excavation and other equipment; rental and sales of equipment and parts; welding, fabrication and machining services; storage of equipment; manufacturing of firearms and ammunition; and limited agricultural uses.
Neighbors said they have a lot of questions about the repercussions of the land use change and see Levin's plans as "vague" and "not legally binding." They want the application to be more specific. If it's not, they fear a worst-case scenario of industrial use or possible oil and gas operations. In the end, they want Bowie Resources to keep its word and return the site to its original state under the CDRMS permit.
During a two-hour meeting held last week with neighboring property owners notified by Delta County of the application, Levin said he plans to consolidate five equipment storage sites he owns in Colorado and Utah at the Paonia site. He also might lease the property to a local excavation company for the first year or two. Once in operation, he anticipates his business could provide between four and six new jobs and possibly employ recently laid-off miners and other skilled workers.
Judy Martin, who requested the meeting, purchased property directly above the site. Martin is a CPA and retired chief financial officer with development companies in California and questioned Levin directly about the economic and logistic viability of his business plan. "I know what is needed to make a commercial project viable," said Martin.
The application also encompasses "ancillary property" at 16180 Stevens Gulch Road. According to a public notice published April 26 and May 3 in the DCI, "some portions of the property will be used for electrical transmission and distribution, communications lines and water conveyance." While the application lists possible residential development, Levin said he may build a home on the property, but doesn't foresee other development.
Paonia Holdings would also contract with Delta-Montrose Electric Association to reduce power between a transformer at the load out site and a sub-station on Stevens Gulch from an industrial to a residential level and remove high-voltage lines, said Levin. Existing power poles would be removed at the load out site and new poles and a new transformer would be built on-site.
The main access to the load out site would be off of Highway 133. A railroad bridge built over the North Fork of the Gunnison River could provide access from Grange and Black Bridge roads, but would likely be gated or removed, said Levin during a site visit with Bowie mine officials, area planners, neighboring land owners and the media. "That's an issue between Bowie and landowners." With the exception of possible employee access, "There's no logical reason to bring traffic through that access."
Neighbors also argued that commercial and industrial uses aren't compatible with the area's growing reputation as an agricultural and recreational community. Under industrial uses they fear that adjacent land values, water sources and air quality could be compromised and upset their businesses and lifestyles.
Several neighbors also expressed a lack of trust in the system. A May 5, 1976, article in the North Fork Times reported that the Westmoreland Coal Company had acquired purchase options to parcels along the approximately 1.5 mile long strip of land through a Colorado real estate salesman. The potential buyer never revealed his connection to Westmoreland and claimed he was seeking orchard lands, according to the article. Mine representatives also held a community meeting, but didn't inform the potential sellers or the media.
Some also believe Westmoreland reneged on a promise to put coal silos partially underground, and instead built three, 110-foot high silos. Martin said the silos were visible from her property. At one point the load out was operating 24 hours a day, was brightly lit at night, and ran at a high noise level, "disturbing the entire area."
The silos were removed in 2008, and neighbors assumed the remaining reclamation requirements would be met. Residents questioned whether the land use change could allow Levin to sell or lease to another party. If so, they questioned whether that would that open the site to other industrial uses or to the oil and gas industry should hydraulic fracturing open up in the area. They also questioned how existing water rights might be affected under commercial/light industrial designation.
"We can understand what you're going to do," said Lee Bradley, who operates Black Bridge Winery directly below the site. "But at the very same time could you immediately lease it to somebody else?" If so, he asked, what other possible uses might be allowed?
Levin said he could lease or sell. He said he has complied with Delta County's request and listed all the possible uses he is considering. The problem, said Levin, is that Delta County doesn't have zoning laws. If it did, zoning categories would list all allowable permitted and conditional uses.
The application is scheduled for review by the Upper North Fork Area Planning Advisory Committee and the Delta County Planning Commission, The review will begin at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 10, at Paonia Town Hall.
Comments on the proposed changes must be received by the Delta County Planning Department no later than June 5. The date county commissioners will hear the application has been moved to the June 12 meeting of the BoCC at the Delta County Courthouse. For more information, contact the planning department at 874-3226.