Bill would shield new quarries from county oversight

The bill would apply to the open-pit limestone mine proposed for Parleys Canyon that has been opposed by Salt Lake County.

New quarries could be shielded from virtually any county or municipal oversight, including the controversial open-pit limestone mine proposed for Parleys Canyon, under a bill unveiled Monday in the Utah House.

HB527 would expand the concept of a “vested mining use,” exempting new operations from local land-use regulations.

The bill appears to be tailored to fit the situation faced by the I-80 South Quarry, proposed by Granite Construction against strong objections raised by Salt Lake County officials and elected officials from nearby cities.

HB527 could impede counties’ ability to safeguard the health and safety of their residents by enabling potentially noxious land uses in places where they don’t fit, according to Catherine Kanter, deputy county mayor for regional operations.

“It also poses a serious threat to neighboring private property owners, who will most likely see a diminution in the value of their property,” Kanter said.

On Tuesday, the County Council voted unanimously “hell no,” in opposition to HB527.

“The bill could potentially have devastating impacts on local air quality, critical watersheds, enhanced wildfire risk, our region’s ongoing drought crisis, cherished recreational opportunities and historic sites, potential impairment to a successful Olympic bid, and other major economic and quality of life concerns,” she said. “Salt Lake County should continue to have the right to exercise its legitimate land use authority to address health, safety, and community concerns within its borders. That is what local jurisdictions do best.”

The extraction of sand, gravel, stone and other aggregates have proliferated along the Wasatch Front foothills to feed a booming construction industry, prompting the Salt Lake County Council to ban new mining operations in the foothills and canyons east of Salt Lake City. The ban was adopted last year in direct response to the proposal first floated by developer Jesse Lassley and his company Tree Farm to mine up to 2 million tons of limestone a year on a 634-acre parcel he owns near Mount Aire Canyon, about three miles up Parleys Canyon on the south side of Interstate 80.

He has since partnered with Granite Construction, a massive California-based aggregate producer with operations in Utah and 26 other states, to build and operate the quarry. The pit would be excavated one ravine down from Mount Air Canyon, where about 100 mostly seasonal homes would feel the project’s many negative impacts, say residents and other critics who have formed the new group Save Parleys.

“Granite’s behavior in advancing the Parley’s quarry proposal has been dismissive of the local community’s value [of] the Wasatch Mountains and has revealed their disregard for one of Utah’s most important quality-of-life assets,” homeowner Brenda Reiss-Brennan said. “They won’t attend meetings or engage in dialogue, demonstrating a striking lack of interest in our community’s input. There is a clear discrepancy in the values stated by Granite’s headquarters in California and the way they pursue projects in Utah.”

Mount Aire residents are now wondering the same thing about the Legislature.

HB527 sponsor Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, opened a bill file in the opening week of the session last month, but kept the language under wraps until this week, ensuring a rushed process in the Senate if it clears the House. HB527 has yet to be assigned to a House committee for a hearing.

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly raised concerns about the continued operation of aggregate quarries along the Wasatch Front, where neighboring homeowners and orchards are getting frustrated with the noise, truck traffic and dust emanating from these pits.

To keep transportation costs and impacts down, however, sand and gravel need to be quarried close to where they are put to use in building roads, sidewalks and foundations. Aggregate mining must unavoidably occur near where people live and enjoy the outdoors, policymakers and producers argue.

The latest measure protecting the industry builds on a 2019 bill that prohibits cities and counties from interfering with expansions of existing operations that extract “critical infrastructure materials” like sand and gravel. Such quarries’ expansions are now under the exclusive purview of the state, namely the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) and the Department of Environmental Quality.

DOGM has already issued a “small mining operation” permit for the Parleys project, limiting it to 20 acres, while county officials have vowed to block it altogether, saying the location is not appropriate for a quarry. Project proponents have taken the county to court in hopes of blocking the mining ban from being applied to the quarry.

In court filings, Tree Farm argued its project qualifies as a vested mining use under current law, so the county has no say in the matter.

While that legal issue has yet to be resolved, HB527 could render it moot. The bill would accord “vested” status to land that has any history of mining activity or is connected to mineral-bearing property, “regardless of whether actual excavation or land disturbance has occurred.”

Most of the Wasatch foothills and canyons in Salt Lake County, thanks to its rich mining legacy, would be open to new mining under this language, even if these locations are no longer suitable for mining, according to Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons.

“It creates this slippery slope thing where you can go out and buy up land around these old mine locations and basically say, ‘I have a vested mining use,’” Fisher said. The ramifications would not be limited to just Parleys.

“There are thousands of abandoned mines all across the state of Utah,” Fisher said. “It could create a situation where we have new mines popping up all across the state without any other characteristics or environmental considerations of the landscape being a factor — whether it’s a watershed, whether this is an appropriate use for water, whether it’s an appropriate place to create massive amounts of dust.”

Lassley recently acquired a 50% stake in the century-old Harper quarry across the freeway from the site of the proposed pit at Exit 132. His lawyers have claimed that silver mining once occurred on the Parleys property, which he acquired in 2020 from the late Park City entrepreneur Ira Sachs along with several other parcels in the canyon.

Given these conditions, the proposed I-80 South Quarry could qualify as a vested mining use if HB527, as currently worded, is signed into law, even though the parcel itself appears untouched.

Mount Aire homeowner Scott Williams suspects the bill would open the door to quarry operations up and down Parleys, potentially turning one of Utah’s busiest canyons into a mining sacrifice zone.

“Once they have their vested mining permit on one piece, they can just leapfrog it from one to the next to the next to the next,” Williams said. “When you think about it, what value does that property have for them? If you’ve already ruined the area by putting two big gravel pits in there, what are you going to do with the rest of the land? You’re just going to extend your gravel pit.”