Tooele County residents win court fight to block gravel pit

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign designating an entrance to the "Southside Gravel Pit," rests on the ground near the South Rim subdivision in Stockton, Utah, in Tooele County. Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. Residents went to court to block the proposed mining operation and in a ruling last week they won. A judge found the County Commission had acted illegally in approving the deal that made the project possible.

A 3rd District Court judge has ruled the Tooele County Commission acted illegally in signing a 2018 land-use agreement allowing a nonconforming gravel company to operate near a residential subdivision.

The decision is a win for neighbors in the South Rim community near Stockton, who had challenged the legality of the agreement. And it comes at a time when gravel operations have become a growing controversy along the expanding Wasatch Front as residential areas have pressed up against them.

“You’ve got to give the homeowners credit for ponying up money to fight the county on this,” said Adam Affleck, the plaintiffs’ attorney, in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “I mean, usually this would be something that would just happen and nobody has enough money to challenge it so it just goes by the wayside.”

The decision, he said, effectively means “the gravel pit is no more.”

Tooele County had entered into a land use agreement with Southside Gravel, LLC. in 2018 amid the prospect of pending litigation. The 25-year agreement allowed the company to conduct commercial gravel operations on its entire 176-acre parcel — even though the zoning of the area didn’t match that use.

The contract, which the Tooele County Commission approved with a 2-1 vote, came after a series of private negotiations with Southside, the ruling notes. Those conversations, Judge Dianna Gibson said in her written ruling last week, effectively “eliminated due process for both concerned citizens and the homeowners.” And because the decision was made through contract, and not by ordinance, it prevented residents from challenging the decision through a local referendum.

The county had entered into the agreement to resolve an impending lawsuit. But it soon found itself embroiled in a separate court battle after a group of homeowners in the South Rim subdivision decided to file suit.

They pooled their money to take the case to court and sought a judgment that the county had engaged in illegal contract zoning and violated their due process rights by entering into the agreement with Southside.

“Obviously there are laws and processes put in place to have order and to protect citizens and in this particular case, it was obvious that those were being bypassed to benefit an individual,” said Scott Hunter, one of two residents who were listed as the primary plaintiffs in the case. “And it was just mind-blowing that that could even occur. And I guess at the end of the day, we knew right was right and we were willing to band together to do what was right.”

Affleck said the homeowners were also motivated by the environmental and health challenges that come with having a gravel pit operation in a community.

“Instead of having a great view out your front door you have the view of a gravel pit operation and trucks going by and all of the problems that come with that,” he said. “The homeowners were very concerned because they perceived their property values as going down substantially if that gravel pit got underway.”

In defending itself, the county argued in court that the agreement with Southside had provided for “operational restrictions that it would not otherwise receive if it pursued litigation and lost.” And it cast the commission’s decision as one that rested within its power and discretion.

But after hearing oral arguments last month and in February, the judge ultimately sided with the homeowners. She ruled, in a decision first reported by The Tooele Transcript Bulletin, that the agreement was effectively a rezone and that the county had attempted “to do by contract what can only be done by following statutory procedure.”

“It violates Utah Law and Tooele County ordinances,” Gibson wrote of the agreement. “The commission exceeded its authority in approving it.”

Hunter said he expected that would be the outcome all along. But that didn’t make the victory less vindicating, he said.

“After all the hard work and — to use a cliche — the blood, sweat and tears, there was a whole mixed bag of emotions for me,” he said. “I shouted for joy. I shed a couple tears. And just to know it was finally over and that the judge could see everything that we had been saying the whole time, I felt validated.”

While it’s still possible that Southside Gravel could submit a zone change request to operate the gravel pit lawfully, Affleck said he’s skeptical that the Planning Commission would approve an operation so close to a residential subdivision.

Commission Chairman Tom Tripp, who was not in office at the time the agreement was made, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday that the county was meeting with outside counsel to explore a “variety of proposed directions” for where to go next.

He said an appeal is one of those options but that no decisions have been made yet.

“I think this is an interesting case where a citizen initiative, at least for now, carried the day in court,” Tripp said. “There was some interesting and conscientious work by residents. The judge made some strong statements and we’re trying to figure out what that means.”

The deal with Southside was approved by County Commissioner Wade Bitner, who did not seek reelection in 2018, and Shawn Milne, who will depart in January after being handily defeated in the June 30 GOP primary election.

As the county considers its next steps, Affleck said he hopes that the outcome of the lawsuit will echo beyond this ruling and serve as a lesson for government officials about the need for transparency and good public process in future land deals.

“Maybe the county will be a little more careful when they do this type of thing again and waste everybody’s time and everybody’s money,” he said.