UNION COUNTY — The Union County Planning Commission held off Monday night, March 8, on saying yea or nay to the proposal to create a rock quarry at the bottom of Robbs Hill Road near Perry. Instead, the commission voted to delay the decision until its next regular meeting, March 22.
The move came after about two and a half hours of testimony during a phone-in only hearing to consider approving the plan for the 250-plus acre quarry on the property of James Smejkal of Banks.
Curtis Shuck of Shelby, Montana, attorney for the quarry applicants, represented the project along with Smejkal’s son, Bob Smejkal of Eugene. Shuck said putting together the 400-page application “has been a journey of discovery” that has made the project stronger.
The quarry aims to use trains to ship more than 2,000 tons of rock per day for more than 100 years, he said, and the application lays out plans to control pollution and curtail noise. He asserted the regulation of quarries has never been more stringent. Quarry operations that don’t abate these issues, he said, face severe fines and even the revocation of operating permits.
He also said the project would not be visible from La Grande or Perry, although he admitted eastbound drivers on Interstate 84 coming into the Grande Ronde Valley would see the quarry near milepost 256.
Still, Shuck said, this quarry would be a model of “how quality of life and industrial development are not mutually exclusive” and the quarry would be a “22nd century opportunity here to be a smart development.”
Bob Smejkal said his father, who is in his late 80s, loves and enjoys this property for all purposes and its natural beauty. He said the application’s big game management plan, conservation easement and forest stewardship plan are integral to how the area would function. The project addressed concerns from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, he said, and the forest stewardship allows the harvesting of timber only for the health of the timber stand, such as to control pests.
“There will not be any commercial clear-cuts, there will not be any commercial timber activity,” Smejkal said.
Shuck added the total conservation easement would be 4,700 acres, far larger than the quarry.
But numerous people who called in still expressed their opposition, leading off with David Moyal of La Grande, who said he was doing community organizing against the project and submitted 45 pages of specific objections to the application. That included a dispute on whether the railroad crossing at Robbs Hill Road was a public right-of-way.
County Planning Director Scott Hartell explained the county’s legal counsel is reviewing that and is in talks with Union Pacific Railroad. He said it appears in 1958 when the state transferred the land to the railroad there was an error in designating it as private and not public.
That should get sorted out before the project moves forward, Moyal said, and the application lacks a comprehensive site plan. Without that, he asked, how can the commission know what it’s looking at? He said these grounds alone are enough to deny the plan. But, he said, another factor also looms.
“Finally, I would like to say, the application is hugely unpopular,” Moyal said.
The stream of voices that followed Moyal almost universally agreed with him. They said the quarry would harm the quality of life in the valley, disturb the Grande Ronde River’s prime steelhead habitat, end huckleberry picking and mushroom hunting at the site and mar the view.
Kathy Webb (callers did not spell their names) of La Grande contended the project “is going to ruin our lovely corridor,” sending the wrong message to people coming into the valley and harming recreational tourism.
Amy and Zachary Sherrod, who said they are leaving Los Angeles at the end of the month to return to their hometown of La Grande, said a quarry would harm the area’s natural beauty, which fuels the local economy.
“We don’t want an industrial scar as the welcome mat to the valley,” Zachary Sherrod said.
Six of the eight planning commissioners attended the hearing, according to the county planning department: Chair Joel Hasse, Pete Caldwell, Mat Barber, Silas Kelty, Joe Kresse and Randy McKinnis. Commissioners Mace Cadwell and Chuck Sarrett did not attend.
After taking the testimony, Caldwell moved to table the vote to the March 22 meeting. He said that would give the commission time to read the new written testimony it received before the hearing.
No one gave a second right away but instead debated the matter.
One commissioner — they tended not to identify themselves when speaking during the phone-in only hearing — said the new material might help the commission to make a balanced decision rather than one based only on the view of the applicant. Another referred to Hartell’s staff report, which stated the planning commission must base its decision for a land use plan on the applicant’s ability to meet several criteria, including community attitudes and the consideration of comparable, alternative sites for the quarry. One commissioner said “it’s a fairly incomplete application in a lot of areas.”
Caldwell’s motion finally received its second, and the commission voted to make a final decision on the quarry application on March 22.