This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.
From Hans Bilben’s back deck, one can see Mount Redoubt, waves from Cook Inlet crashing on the beach at Anchor Point and hillsides dotted with a handful of homes. Perched on the side of a natural amphitheater, Bilben’s house also overlooks a patch of undeveloped forest that extends across the valley below.
Bilben, his wife Jeanne and many of their neighbors fear that their scenic view will be damaged if a proposed gravel pit moves in next door.
Emmitt Trimble — owner of Coastal Realty, whose family has been developing and selling property in the area for around 40 years — manages Beachcomber LLC, a company that’s been working for a year to excavate gravel on 27 acres of his property. The property, totaling around 40 acres, sits at the bottom of the natural amphitheater, 500 feet from the Anchor River and near several state parks and campgrounds. As a developer, Trimble said one of his major costs is gravel. He said he wants the property’s 40 or so acres to be multi-use, where 27 acres is used to mine gravel, and the oceanfront parcels remain untouched, as a legacy property for his daughters.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission rarely denies gravel pit permits, but last July, Trimble’s application to excavate his Anchor Point property was denied after hours of public testimony raised concerns about potential disturbances created by the gravel pit, including damaged views, noise, dust, truck traffic and the property values of adjacent property owners, the Clarion previously reported. Commissioners who voted to deny the permit said it wouldn’t meet the noise and visual impact conditions even with additional buffers, according to Clarion archives.
“If you are willing to meet the conditions required, you get the permit,” Trimble said. “Unfortunately, the planning commission went off on its own and did whatever it wanted. It cost us a lot of money and a year.”
After his permit was denied, Trimble applied for a smaller permit — one that doesn’t require a public hearing — to excavate on a 2.5-acre section of the property. Last August, Trimble decided to appeal the commission’s decision, which will be heard again June 10. Some concerned neighbors hope the appeal for a permit is denied again at the hearing.
Trimble has full faith in the project. He touted the family’s 40-year track record with property development, and said he’s intending to redevelop the land after the lifespan of the pit comes to an end.
“I’m always looking to develop and redevelop,” Trimble said. “It’s not like I’m going to dig the gravel up and leave a hole sitting there.”
The excavation would happen in three phases, and has an estimated lifespan of 15 years or more, and could result in up to 50,000 cubic yards of gravel per year, according to the application. Bilben estimates this could require thousands of trucks a year traveling the neighborhood’s roads, which provide the only access to a handful of state parks and serve as the main access road for the area beach. The required route also includes a narrow bridge over the Anchor River with an 11-ton weight limit, a similar weight to an empty 10-yard dump truck.
Trimble’s efforts to mine the gravel on his property is well within the law, if the permit is granted. But, balancing the rights of property owners and neighbors in unzoned areas can be tricky. For property owners in unzoned areas interested in mining gravel, certain conditions in borough code must be met to get a permit, including buffers, barriers and regulations for when heavy machinery like rockcrushers can be operated. If these conditions are met, permits can be issued, despite how the conditions required in the code adequately protect neighbors.
“It’s always the people who are closest to it, who don’t want it,” Trimble said. “It’s that simple, but that’s not the way it works in unincorporated, unzoned areas.”
Bilben doesn’t believe current borough code would minimize his, or many of his neighbors’ properties from sight and sound impacts coming from the proposed pit. Bilben’s house sits 90 feet above the proposed pit, while the home of another neighbor, Pete Kineen, sits roughly 70 feet above the proposed pit. Six-foot-tall berms are required by the borough, but to block the view for many neighbors, Bilben estimates those berms would need to be at least 52 feet high.
“Say you’re gong down the road in Kansas or Florida where it’s flat,” Kineen said. “A 6-foot fence, 6 feet is sufficient and that’s all there is to it. Here in this amphitheater, I’m about 70 feet and Hans (Bilben) are 90 feet above. There’s nothing they can do to screen this off. The effective height of the fence would have to be 52 feet.”
“We wouldn’t even see the berm because we’re so far over it,” Bilben said.
Kineen called the proposed pit an “intrusion into paradise.”
“I’m concerned that the entire point of being here would be destroyed,” Kineen said. “Everything else is just a detail. It would destroy the whole atmosphere here. The noise would be overwhelming, the dust would be uncontrollable. The view — I didn’t move down from Anchorage just to look at a gravel pit.”
Neighbors opposing the proposed pit said they think the borough could be doing more to protect homeowners.
“Basically, the homeowners have no protections,” Bilben said. “If somebody comes into your neighborhood, buys a piece of land and says, ‘I want a gravel pit there,’ they get it unless they don’t submit the reclamation plan or if there is a body water that’s going to be affected.”
In January of 2018, the borough created the Material Site Workgroup, a council of stakeholders tasked with reexamining borough gravel pit regulations. The group was supposed to wrap up, with possible recommendations and improvements to the code, six months later. The group ended 15 months later this May. Their new proposal will be reviewed by the planning commission and then the assembly. Some neighbors opposed to the Trimble pit are not satisfied with new code recommendations, which they believe don’t offer sufficient barriers to protect nearby homeowners from noise and visual impacts of the mine.
Assembly member Willy Dunne, who represents the residents in Anchor Point, said he was disappointed the Material Site Workgroup took so long. He says the assembly will most likely be addressing the code proposal in late July. He’s heard lots of concerns from residents about proposed gravel pits in the area, and said he hasn’t had an opportunity as an assembly member to directly address those concerns.
“My main role would be to address the proposed changes through the ordinance that’s coming up,” he said. “I’m following the issue. I’m talking with residents. I’ve heard from people both for and against the gravel pit.”
He said there are some deficiencies in current borough code.
“In certain situations the buffers might not be adequate,” he said.
To invite the public to learn more about the Trimbles’ efforts and plans for the property, the family hosted an open house June 1, where people could tour the property, learn about the pit and ask questions. The land, which Trimble has owned since 2016, is the remainder of the Kyllonen family homestead, established in 1946. During the tour, Buzz Kyllonen gave a presentation on Anchor Point’s history in front of his mother’s homestead, which the Trimbles plan to preserve as a historical site, Allison Trimble Paparoa, Emmit Trimble’s daughter, said.
“This was a very positive event and the Trimbles are very grateful to the people who attended with an open mind,” Trimble-Paparoa said. “A wonderful time was had by all. This is the Anchor Point community we know and love.”
Neighbors opposing the pit say they are not against the gravel industry. Building in Alaska often requires gravel, and Lynn Whitmore, a neighbor to the proposed Beachcomber LLC gravel pit, said the gravel industry is huge in Anchor Point — noting the entire town of Homer was built using gravel brought from the Anchor Point area. He occasionally works for gravel companies, in permitting, and said he’s noticed some companies buying property “out in the sticks” to get away from the controversy that comes with mining near homes.
“If you buy property around a gravel pit, you ought to expect the interference from a gravel pit, but you if buy property with a nice view down from the beach here, and (the gravel pit) comes in — we want to stop the next guy from going through this,” Whitmore said. “The neighbors are stuck seeing it and hearing it for a long time.”
In a document submitted by Bilben to the borough’s Material Site Workgroup, he outlines property value concerns of the proposed pit’s neighbors. Using assessed property values of the proposed pit, and 45 neighboring parcels, Bilben estimated the neighboring property values could drop by 30%, a potential loss of $2,343,960 in assessed valuation dollars for the borough.
Trimble-Paparoa, who is an owner and managing broker with her family at Coastal Realty and who helps run the business in Washington state, said the last thing her family wants to do is negatively impact property values. She said the property is part of her family’s legacy, and eventually, the family hopes to retire there. Her sister is already living near the property where the proposed gravel pit would be.
The planning commission will have a public hearing June 10.