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Aggravated over Aggregate

Neighbors question county planner's ties to asphalt-plant scheme

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Woodland Park West resident Tim Hanes believes the asphalt plant will stink up the neighborhood. (Planned site in the background.) - SUNNIE SACKS
  • Sunnie Sacks
  • Woodland Park West resident Tim Hanes believes the asphalt plant will stink up the neighborhood. (Planned site in the background.)

It's bad enough that an asphalt plant will soon be belching malodorous fumes and stirring up dust near Woodland Park West, a subdivision between Woodland Park and Divide.

But the neighbors claim the environment around them won't be the only thing tainted as a result of the plant's recent approval. Already, they have lost confidence in the integrity of local government officials.

The day after the Teller County Planning Commission approved the temporary plant, it was announced that the same senior county planner who had recommended the approval was resigning to take a job with a company connected to the asphalt-plant scheme.

On March 12, the seven-member Planning Commission endorsed the temporary plant, to be operated by Kirkland Construction, over the objections of neighbors who argued its location was inappropriate. Kirkland, based in the town of Rye, south of Pueblo, intends to set up the plant in an old gravel pit off Highway 24, half a mile from Woodland Park West. The company will use the plant to make asphalt for a widening project on Highway 24, which is being expanded this summer from two to four lanes between Woodland Park and Divide.

The neighbors pointed out that the temporary plant site is zoned as rural-residential, not industrial. But Kirkland was able to persuade the county in part because the gravel pit is "grandfathered" for industrial use, having been in operation before the land was zoned.

Perceived impropriety

What the neighbors didn't know at the time was that Jane Mannon, the county planner who had processed Kirkland's application, was quitting her job to take a position with the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co., based in Victor. The mining company, one of Teller County's largest employers, also owns the site where Kirkland is obtaining waste rock, or "aggregate," for making its asphalt -- the former Cameron mining site, off County Highway 82 near Cripple Creek.

Mannon said she notified her bosses -- the Teller County Board of Commissioners -- that she planned to resign on March 5 to go to work for the mining company. However, she did not disclose that potential conflict publicly prior to the Planning Commission's consideration, nor did she recuse herself from handling Kirkland's application or recommending it be approved.

In an interview, Mannon dismissed allegations of real or perceived impropriety as "ridiculous."

County Attorney Chris Brandt refused to say whether he had been consulted on Mannon's potential conflict. "That's attorney/client privileged information," he claimed.

Following the Planning Commission's approval, the neighbors hired Colorado Springs attorney Debra Eiland to help them appeal the decision to the county's Board of Adjustment. Their appeal raised the concern that Mannon might have had a conflict of interest and also asserted that Kirkland had failed to demonstrate it would be able to operate the plant in an environmentally safe manner.

The county planning staff issued a response to the appeal, disagreeing with most of the neighbors' concerns, including the conflict-of-interest allegations. The response was written and presented by Mannon, who was still on staff.

"There is no financial interest, much less a direct and substantial economic benefit, by or to the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company, nor Jane Mannon," Mannon wrote.

The reason, she stated, was that the mining company doesn't actually receive any profits from sales of waste rock to Kirkland. The Cameron site is leased out to a third party, Conley Construction, which sells the material.

In an interview, Mannon said the idea that she might have a conflict of interest never crossed her mind. "Frankly, it's ridiculous," she said.

Bryan Weiskopf, a spokesman for the mining company, said the company has no interest in whether or not the waste rock is removed. The state of Colorado has been responsible for reclamation of the site since its former operator, Newport Minerals, went bankrupt in 1985. After Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining acquired the property in 1996, it agreed to help the state with reclamation, but purely out of "good will," Weiskopf said.

Berhan Keffelew, a reclamation specialist with the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology, backed Weiskopf's assessment.

"They are doing the state of Colorado a favor," Keffelew said. "There is nothing for CC&V to be gained."

Keffelew said the material at the Cameron site is free of toxic pollutants often associated with mining and has been found safe for general use.

'Next to nothing'

The Board of Adjustment rejected the neighbors' appeal on a 3-2 vote following a six-hour meeting on April 10 in Woodland Park. An attorney for Kirkland told the board the plant would have all the necessary environmental permits and would emit "next to nothing" in terms of pollution.

Neighbors, meanwhile, say they still suspect the mining company has a long-term interest in having waste rock removed from its property. And Eiland said that even if Mannon truly didn't stand to gain from the plant's approval, she should have disclosed her employment situation sooner. State law, Eiland noted, directs county commissioners and staff to prevent even the mere "appearance" of conflict of interest. By not doing so, Mannon tainted the decision, Eiland maintained.

"People have lost confidence in the process," Eiland lamented.

-- Terje Langeland

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