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BIHA quarry neighbors share safety concerns

The Baranof Island Housing Authority can go ahead with its plan to nearly double the size of a quarry it owns in Sitka.

The Assembly last night gave approval to a 20-year permit that would allow the public housing organization to expand the rock pit. It would go from 18.8 acres to about 36.

But residents who live nearby say they’re worried about safety and peace in their neighborhood.

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The issue isn’t so much with the quarry itself, as with the traffic it might generate. Bo Hedrick lives near the gate where semi-trucks access the gravel road leading to the quarry.

“I purchased the home just over a year ago with the understanding that they were going to continue to move rock out of there, but just for another month or two, and then they were going to be shutting it down,” he said.

Those two months, he said, were stressful. Traffic to the quarry comes in and out on Yaw Drive, a residential street. Hedrick’s house is on a side street, just uphill from Yaw. And that worries him as the parent of two kids, ages 4 and 7.

“So anytime they drop the basketball, let go of anything, it rolls immediately, right down and through Yaw Drive and right into the ditch on the other side,” he said. “Semis coming down there were averaging probably 30 or 40 miles per hour when they come down. They’re coming down from the gravel road and there’s no stop sign, there’s no yield, there’s no ‘hey slow down.’ They’re flying. They’re coming out.”

BIHA doesn’t have concrete plans for the quarry yet, except that it knows it wants access to more rock. Work could be sporadic, and on a project-by-project basis. Crews will move material as needed, but not necessarily all the time.

“We’re not really in the rock business. We’re in the housing business,” said Cliff Richter, development coordinator for BIHA. “The primary purpose of the request is how could we reclaim the site and turn it into something that would be more feasibly developed for residential use in the future. So we’re looking not two years or three years out, but five, 10 maybe 20 years out from now.”

Assembly members had their own concerns. Phyllis Hackett wanted to know why there wasn’t more public comment. She worried that the alphabet soup of government regulations and code wasn’t always understandable to the general public.

“I get mailings of things that are happening that I should be aware of it, and really, I’m fairly well informed, but I would say 80 percent of the time — maybe 75 — I don’t know what it’s talking about,” Hackett said.

She’s had that worry before, and Planner Maegan Bosak said it’s been taken seriously. The Planning Department now writes paragraphs on the back of public notices it mails to neighbors attempting to explain the government terms on the front. That happens for every issue now. And for this case in particular, Bosak said the Planning Department tried to get more public comment.

“We went ahead and extended the public process to three public hearings for both issues, and a fourth for the conditional use permit going over all the conditions and the findings,” Bosak said.

The Assembly added a couple conditions to the permit, including the installation of a stop sign near the gate and a speed limit of 20 miles an hour for trucks along Yaw Drive.

“Speeding of heavy equipment in Sitka is a plague,” said interim Municipal Administrator Jay Sweeney. “And the only way you can control that is either by law enforcement or by having such a penalty that it stings hard enough to really cause the folks to not speed. You get caught speeding, your quarry gets shut down.”

The Assembly agreed that tougher penalties of some sort — Sweeney’s example or not — would work, but rewriting the law to make room for them would take some time.

Neighbors, meanwhile, like Hedrick, still have concerns. He wanted to know if there are no foreseen projects for the quarry to ship rock, why does work have to happen six days a week, as the permit allows? Why does work have to start at 7 a.m., when kids are still boarding school buses along the road? And finally, why do the rock trucks need to come through the neighborhood at all? After all, he said, they’re going to have a lot of rock to work with…

“If they could build their own road, it’d be outstanding,” Hedrick said. “If there was an area they could actually go, and come out where they’ve got their new complex, that would cut out the housing, everything — if the trucks could come out in that area, and go up in that area, and completely not go into the residential area, it would be ideal.”

Both Richter, from BIHA, and Bosak, from the Planning Department, said BIHA would be happy to work with neighbors, contractors and the city to make the situation work for everyone.

The Assembly approved the changes, 6-0. Thor Christianson recused himself, because of his close friendships with some of the people involved.

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