Salt Lake County has blocked new mining, but will the zoning ordinance hold up against legal challenges?

Proponents of Parleys Canyon limestone operation say zoning change violates a 2019 law protecting ‘critical infrastructure materials.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Parleys Canyon property owner has proposed operating a massive limestone quarry on a 634-acre parcel at this spot in Parleys Canyon, on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.

Salt Lake County Council finalized a zoning ordinance Tuesday that prevents new mines from being cut into the Wasatch foothills adjacent to Utah’s most populated area.

“It’s a visual impact. It’s a potential water quality impact. It’s a local impact on the residents,” said Mayor Jenny Wilson in an interview. But worst of all, Wilson added, open-pit mines release harmful dust plumes in windy weather that no amount of mitigation can prevent.

The Utah Legislature, however, arrived at an opposite conclusion regarding the mining of sand, gravel and rock — deemed “critical infrastructure materials” supporting the state’s economic boom — in a bill passed in the waning hours of the 2019 session. According to the sponsors of HB288, a place like Parleys Canyon is exactly where aggregates should be extracted because these materials need to be mined near where they will be used, otherwise longer trucking distances will drive up construction costs and diesel emissions.

Sponsor Rep. Logan Wilde, R-Croydon, claimed that every 26 miles of travel doubles the cost aggregates to builders.

The law now appears to have put Utah’s most populous county on a collision course with the aggregate industry and proponents of a limestone quarry who claim to have a “vested” right to mine 634 acres they own three miles up Parleys Canyon from Salt Lake City.

“Critical infrastructure materials”

Tree Farm LLC’s lawyer Brent Bateman says the firm’s property has been previously tapped for sand and gravel, thereby qualifying it as an existing operation holding special protection under state law. He contends HB288 bars cities and counties from amending zoning ordinances to exclude sand and gravel operations from any place, regardless of whether mining occurred there in the past.

The legislative debate on HB288, however, focused almost exclusively on protecting existing operations, not proposed ones.

County officials dismiss quarry proponents’ claims as posturing and vow to stick with the new zoning amendment that bans new mines in the Wasatch foothills.

In correspondence with county officials leading up to Tuesday’s final vote, Bateman warned that such an ordinance violates state mining law as amended in 2019, barring counties from enacting rules that would restrict the mining of so-called critical infrastructure materials.

“This ordinance will affect the property rights of not only my client, but of many others,” Bateman wrote in an April 5 letter. “I hope that the County will press pause and engage in some discussions about this matter.”

Don’t count on that, said deputy mayor of regional operations Catherine Kanter, who believes that Bateman is misinterpreting the law. County officials say they have a duty to protect the health of county residents, who spoke in complete unanimity in support of the zoning change.

HB288′s main provisions shield existing operations that extract and process sand, gravel and stone. The state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining and Department of Environmental Quality continue to exercise direct oversight and permitting authority, while counties and cities may issue conditional-use permits.

In drafting the new ordinance, county officials were careful to avoid any references to these materials, according to Kanter.

“It’s focused on minerals and mineral extraction. So [Tree Farm’s] focus on critical infrastructure materials doesn’t make any sense to us because it’s not in there,” Kanter said. ”There’s a distinction in the law between minerals and critical infrastructure materials.”

A history of mining?

In a letter to Utah’s property rights ombudsman, Bateman alleged the ordinance amounts to a “regulatory taking” warranting “just compensation” to Tree Farm. His letter requested negotiations with the county, which rejected the overture.

Kanter contends any harm that Tree Farm has suffered is merely hypothetical since no final action has been taken. In fact, the company has yet to file a land-use application with the county, although it has filed an application for a large-mining operation with state mine regulators. The company recently agreed to resubmit the application for a small operation.

Bateman’s correspondence features a claim that comes as news to the quarry’s many critics: Aggregates have previously been mined for years on the Parleys Canyon properties, which were acquired by Tree Farm principal Jesse Lassley in 2020.

Tree Farm is part owner of a century-old quarry a mile down the canyon, but the site of the proposed limestone, a ravine in the northeast side of Grandeur Peak, appears largely undisturbed.

“Ample direct evidence exists, including historic and visual evidence, that sand and gravel extraction has occurred on my client’s property for many years, including prior to 1972, when Salt Lake County first adopted zoning ordinances covering Parleys Canyon,” Bateman wrote in a Feb. 11. “Accordingly, my client has rights to a vested critical infrastructure materials operation under the Utah State Code. If necessary, my client will defend those rights.”

Of course, there is historic and visual evidence of mining abounds across the foothills and canyons, which harbor a rich legacy of extraction — including the quarry in Little Cottonwood Canyon that yielded the granite blocks used in Salt Lake City’s iconic temple.

The new ordinance does not affect existing quarries, of which there are plenty in the county. Massive operations have cut deep scars into the hillsides at Point of the Mountain, Big Cottonwood, Parleys canyons and Beck Street, where dust rises in thick plumes on windy days.

Wilson said she is reflecting on the county’s mining history.

“We have relied on Kennecott and now Rio Tinto’s economic impact [from copper mining in the Oquirrh Mountains] in the right way over the years. But with the environmental impacts, what we’re saying now is, ‘Enough is enough,’” Wilson said. “We need to invest the remaining land that we have in preservation and double down on that right now.”

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