Mine Eyes Have Seen the Quarry

When residents in a new Apple Valley subdivision bought their homes, they had no idea a gravel pit was in the works next door

With nine children in her private day care, Francine LeMoine's hope while house-hunting last fall was to find a bigger home in a child-friendly neighborhood. One place she, her husband, and their 5-year-old son visited was Regatta, an Apple Valley subdivision being built by Pulte Homes, a multimillion-dollar local development firm. In February, after months on the open-house circuit, the couple paid nearly $250,000 for a Regatta property--single-family residences in the 469-unit subdivision start at $200,000, townhomes at $100,000--and moved in at the beginning of September.

The family was happy enough with their choice, but their contentment was short-lived. In mid-November, much to their surprise, LeMoine and her neighbors learned that a gravel pit was in the works for the vacant parcel of land adjacent to their homes. The project had been in the planning stages for four years, but Regatta residents say neither the city of Apple Valley nor Pulte Homes bothered to inform them of it when they purchased their properties.

Fischer Sand and Aggregate owns 65.8 acres next to the subdivision. The company, one of the state's largest gravel-mining operations, bought the land in piecemeal fashion: the far east quadrant, which has been mined for several years, in 1995; a bordering chunk two years later; and the tract under dispute--that closest to the LeMoines' home--last August.

In keeping with its present comprehensive land-use plan, Apple Valley allowed no new mining operations within city limits after January 1, 1995. While this decision would seem to prohibit Fischer from mining more of its spread than the original quadrant, a provision allows the company to apply for a conditional-use permit if the proposed quarry borders one currently in operation. Fischer applied for just such a permit this fall, and the city of Apple Valley sent a public-meeting notice to some, but not all, Regatta residents.

"I found out," LeMoine recalls, "because I ran into an old neighbor at the grocery store, and she said to me, 'What do you think about your new neighbors?' I was furious--nobody bothered to tell me." When the parents of her day-care charges--many of whom also live in the development--picked up their children that day, LeMoine told them the news. None of those families had been contacted, either, she says. Across the way, however, Ann Gscheidmeir got one of the city's mailings announcing a public meeting about the proposed mine; she ran copies and made rounds through the neighborhood, stuffing them into doors and mailboxes.

More than 40 Regatta homeowners attended the November 18 meeting of Apple Valley's Planning Commission, the municipal body that fields permit applications, but according to resident Tina Ellis, they weren't prepared to put up much of a fight. "We'd only known about the meeting for a few days, so we didn't know too much about the mine," she says. That was about to change. Ellis and five of her neighbors spent the next few weeks researching the proposed project, and in the process unearthed some disturbing facts.

One inevitable by-product of gravel mining is silica, a compound that, when inhaled in large doses, is known to cause respiratory failure and cancer. "We know that workers have the greatest risk of exposure," LeMoine notes, pointing to the group's findings, "but we're worried about the kids." She adds that keeping them inside, downwind, and away from the mineral dust, for the entire five years the project is slated to run, is not a foolproof solution: "The way these homes are vented, cooler air is drawn in from the outside to kick the furnace in"--thereby, she reasons, pulling air polluted by the mining operation into her house.

In response, Kirsten Rojin, a civil engineer hired by Fischer, says that LeMoine and her neighbors have no cause for worry. "Silica is always in the air," she argues, "and if it posed a health hazard, we'd all have to walk around with respirators." While she does concede that the concentration level is much higher in and around a gravel pit, Rojin nonetheless maintains that Fischer has taken that fact into account by including a 300-foot-wide buffer zone in its plans. "[Silica] particles are too heavy to travel very far," she says. But Rojin's reassurances do little to calm Regatta residents' apprehension. "There are still a number of safety issues involved here," LeMoine asserts. "There's going to be a huge pit in my back yard, and you know how kids are when it comes to dirt piles"--a worry Rojin has tried to answer by pointing at the project's blueprints, which include a 6-foot chain-link fence around the pit. LeMoine and her neighbors aren't convinced.

In addition to attendant health and safety concerns, she, Ellis, and their neighbors have unearthed information that may push the dispute into court. "We dug up the minutes from a 1997 Planning Commission meeting, and found the smoking gun," says Regatta homeowner Terry Holzworth. According to the record of a July 16 city planning commission meeting, a Pulte representative stated that the developer is "fully aware of the existing and proposed mining," and agreed to "fully disclose" such information to potential Regatta property buyers. Furthermore, Pulte representative Dennis Griswold told the commission that his company would "include this in their sales literature."

"There was nothing in their literature about this," Ellis says, adding that she and other prospective buyers specifically questioned Pulte sales reps about plans for the vacant plot of land adjacent to the development. "I was told this was slated for 'low-density housing,'" Ellis goes on, a note of anger apparent in her voice. She's not alone in her outrage. Five other members of their recently formed ad hoc group assert that they were told the same thing. "That was the deciding factor for me," LeMoine says. "I never would have bought the house if I knew a gravel pit was going to be in my back yard."

Pulte attorney Kyle Hegna contends that the company is eager to address the homeowners' complaints: "We've contacted the residents, and I've agreed to meet with them next week." When asked about the developer's previous promise to alert Regatta buyers about the gravel pit expansion, Hegna says he hasn't read the minutes; pressed further, he pauses before promising to "look at that specific language." He stresses, however, that it is Pulte's policy to "disclose all specific knowledge" they have concerning potential environmental hazards--be they toxic-waste dumps or gravel pits in the vicinity--before closing on purchase agreements with home buyers.

On December 2, the Planning Commission reconvened. At the end of a contentious, six-hour meeting, a conditional-use permit green-lighting the expansion of Pulte's mining operation passed 3-2. But the battle's not over yet, say LeMoine and her neighbors. Apple Valley's City Council has final say over the issuance of the permit, so the group is busy lobbying council members to vote No when the issue comes up, most likely on January 22.

In the meantime, the group is exploring the possibility of suing Pulte Homes for fraud. "A lot of us have put our life savings into our homes--we aren't going to stand by helplessly and watch our property values drop," Ellis says. "At this point, we can't say for certain that what [Pulte] did was illegal. But we do know that what they did was morally and ethically wrong."

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