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Land and Property Rights Tribunal hears appeal against McNair Sand and Gravel Ltd.

RVC approved the application for Phase 1 of a sand and gravel operation back in May.
Stripping is underway at the Mountain Ash Summit pit site on Highway 567, just east of the Highway 22 intersection. Photo supplied.

All of the facets in the politics of gravel were on full display during a two-day property rights tribunal this week, involving landowners adjacent to proposed and active pits just north of Cochrane, Rocky View County (RVC), and McNair Sand and Gravel Ltd.

The Land and Property Rights Tribunal (LPRT) was called to hear the appeal of the decision by RVC to approve a development permit to McNair and Buckley Ranch Aggregate Development Inc. (BRADI) to extract 300,000 tonnes of gravel per year from a site east of the Shell station on 567.

Keith and Carolin Koebisch, who live beside the site of the proposed pit launched the appeal, and were joined at the hearing by neighbours opposed to the new pit. 

On May 2, 2023 the County approved the application for Phase 1 of a sand and gravel operation for a limited term of five years, at the SE¼ 01-27-04 W5M in Rocky View County, about 9 km north of Cochrane. The project would be at the corner of Range Road 40 and Highway 567, just east of the industrial park. The site is on the north side of 567, across the road from three other pits, one of which (Hillstone) is active and another (Mountain Ash Summit) is surface stripping as of a few weeks ago. 

The appeal is only in respect of the application for Phase 1, which is about 20 acres of the total project area.

The Koebisch’s land is 825 metres north of the project area. The Big Hill Springs Park is located over 3 km to the southeast.

One of the guiding documents involved is what’s known as the Municipal Development Plan which has a stated goal to: “Support the extraction of natural resources in a manner that balances the needs of residents, industry, and society,” and to “Support the environmentally responsible management and extraction of natural resources.”

In its application for approval, the proponents of the pit submitted a biophysical impact assessment (BIA) which was completed by Ghostpine Environmental in January 2015. It concluded the potential impacts of the project would result in limited local loss of species biodiversity, habitat connectivity, natural features and aesthetics.

The landowners disputed the conclusion during this week’s hearing, producing numerous photographs of wildlife in the area.

The County’s aggregate resources plan (ARP) process was started in 2015, but RVC council terminated the process in 2018 due to lack of consensus on the policy direction and stakeholder opposition. In 2023, they adopted new terms of reference with a specific focus on stakeholder input. The ARP is expected to occur in three phases and the anticipated completion date is 2025.

Harry Hodgson lives 1.9 km to the southwest. He said gravel companies are rushing to get permission to open pits before the new ARP rules kick in.

The appeal this week centred on: cumulative impacts, noise, air quality, road safety, groundwater, surface drainage, wildlife, and the ARP.

Koebisch’s submission read in part: “These issues must be addressed by the LRPT. They all negatively impact our deeply seated love of our rural lifestyle of outdoor activities, farming, closeness to nature and animals. It’s our religion and why we live here.” 

Koebisch’s submission said Highway 567 is very dangerous: “It was meant for traffic volumes from decades past. It is basically just a paved version of the old gravel road. Gravel trucks, commuters, school buses, recreation vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles, all the visitors to Big Hill Springs Provincial Park, and lots of wildlife all have to share the road. There have been deaths on the highway and gravel trucks are the biggest factor.”

A common complaint, raised by more than one of the appellants, revolved around the recommended buffer layer of gravel to be left between the water table and the excavation of aggregate.

McNair’s own Groundwater Assessment submitted with their original application recommended staying 3.5 metres from the water table. As reported in the Master Site Development Plan (MSDP): “It should be understood that groundwater elevations can fluctuate during different times of the year and from year to year, groundwater levels can be higher than observed, or predicted. McNair commits to maintaining the 3.5 metre buffer between expected groundwater levels and the pit floor, to deal with these fluctuations.”

After McNair met with other gravel operators this target was later amended to 1 metre., which became a contentious issue a few times over the course of the two-day hearing. The appellants repeatedly asked for the 3.5 metre buffer to be reinstated.

“That is what McNair’s own technical studies recommended and what he committed himself to,” Koebisch said.

“It is not clear to me why this relaxation of standards should be permitted, when most of the joint operating standards to address cumulative impacts are being ignored.”

Koebisch’s neighbour Harry Hodgson accused gravel companies of “cherry picking whatever’s most profitable.”

He added that McNair had assured everyone at a previous public meeting that 3.5 metres would be the standard.

Hodgson also took exception to the wildlife report done by Ghostpine Environmental Services Ltd. on behalf of McNair. That study stated that “the project area contains limited biodiversity, in terms of wildlife and vegetation.”

Hodgson countered that claim by producing a number of photographs of wildlife in and around his land, and listed wolves, deer, moose, bears, cougars, falcons, eagles, and shrike, among others.

He said that many of these animals could not navigate the steep berms in place at existing pits, and were therefore forced to cross the busy 567, where they were frequently hit by vehicles.

Hodgson’s comment about the potential increased risk of dust pollution took a personal turn when he told the tribunal his daughter has asthma.

“Allowing this pit and all the other ones could put her life at risk,” he said.

He said he’s never seen a representative from McNair.

The appellants cited a study done by Dr. Diane Hite from Auburn University in 2006 that said property values are depressed the closer they are to a gravel pit operation.

“Based on this, we will lose at least 22 per cent of our property value, if the McNair pit proceeds, especially under the loose development permit conditions proposed by (RVC),” their submission reads.

Gerry Bietz of the Bighill Creek Preservation Society (BCPS) also made a presentation, citing a study they commissioned showing the links between gravel operations and risks to groundwater.

That study recommended a 4 m buffer zone between the water table and the bottom of gravel excavations. Their recommendations were submitted to the province in an appeal of the approval of the adjacent Mountain Ash Summit pit, which is 800 metres away from Bighill Springs Provincial Park. BCPS is asking for a setback of 1.6 km.

They are still awaiting a response from the province on that appeal.

Bietz and his colleagues at BCPS have been lobbying for protection of Bighill Springs Provincial Park for years, and says the proximity of the park and the springs makes gravel extraction a problem.

“It’s a significant natural attribute – 250,000 people a year come to that park,” he said.

Representatives and subject matter experts from McNair repeated in their summary that they had followed all necessary requirements of the application process with RVC and the province.

Near the end of the hearing Bonnie Anderson, McNair’s legal counsel, summarized their case, and also offered some new mitigation measures on behalf of the company, including removal of some berms and increased monitoring.

The landowners did not seem moved by the offers.

“There are so many errors and omissions – they should have to start over and re-apply,” Hodgson said.

The tribunal will now consider all the testimony before issuing their written decision.

According to the Municipal Government Act, one of the things the tribunal must rule on is whether or not the gravel operations “materially interfere with or affect the use, enjoyment or value of neighbouring parcels of land.”


Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
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