The Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission approved new recommended regulations for the Casper Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone, submitting them for approval to the Albany County Commission.
Much like previous meetings, however, Wednesday’s planning board meeting was not without controversy.
County Planner David Gertsch and County Attorney Peggy Trent initiated a revision of the APOZ development requirements after Trent dropped an injunction request against the Tumbleweed gas station, a nonconforming but grandfathered use located within the APOZ, once she determined that current regulations would be ineffective to stop its reemergence.
The Casper Aquifer provides Laramie with about half of its drinking water. Additionally, around 450 residents in the county rely on the aquifer for 100% of their drinking water.
Among the changes to the regulations the county uses for developments atop the aquifer is a measure prohibiting anyone but the property owner from petitioning a piece of land to be included or excluded from the APOZ.
Currently, anyone can apply to have land included in the APOZ report prepared by a professional geologist or hydrologist, based upon and including verifiable scientific evidence; a group did so recently for a property up for rezoning across the street from Tumbleweed.
The new regulations also outline more clearly what constitutes a technical review of a site-specific investigation as well as adding criteria to determine when a nonconforming use on the APOZ would be considered abandoned.
During the discussion, planning board member John Spiegelberg also proposed adding language that would require geologists or other professionals presenting information, SSIs or technical reviews to the board to report any potential conflicts of interest, including work with “another city or county or another government entity.”
“It ultimately impacts that property owner,” Speigelberg said. “I don’t want to see any private property rights violated. … We’re supposed to be held to a high standard, but I think this needs to be added and hold them just as high of a standard, if not higher, because they are professionals.”
Spiegelberg further expressed his frustration about potential conflicts of interest after local geologist Maura Hanning, who serves on the city of Laramie’s Planning Commission, voiced her position.
While the proposed regulation changes included a clause requesting proof of compliance with local, state and federal regulations before issuing a permit, Hanning suggested adding additional language that would ensure the compliance is kept up to date throughout the business’s operation and not just when obtaining the permit.
“When you give somebody a permit, you’re also expecting them to follow all the other things they have to without you having to be the babysitter to check on that,” she said. “You’re just saying — whether you’re permitted or you’re there before these changes and just a nonconforming, unpermitted use — that if you run afoul of the regulations expected for you, your protection as a grandfathered use is in jeopardy. I think that’s a reasonable thing to ask for.”
Recognizing that the now-completed replacement of Tumbleweed’s dated fuel lines was “a really important improvement to the environmental safety of the property,” Hanning also pointed out that while the storage capacity of the gas station’s underground tanks may remain unchanged, the number of times the tanks are refilled can be endless.
“In my mind, that is an increased hazard to the aquifer,” Hanning said. “The higher throughput means there are more chances for spills at the gas station by users. … It has to be greater than 25 gallons to be a reportable quantity under the state’s storage tank regulations. So, you can have lots of little spills all day long and never have to report it.”
Frustrated, Spiegelberg proclaimed he’s tired of the “relentless assault on our image, neighborhoods, our water, our families, our property values” from the public.
“The battle goes on and on and on,” he said. “These people won’t be satisfied until we either have to bulldoze our homes down or do something else. … I’m sick of it.”
Hanning said she was voicing concerns not only as someone who also lives within the APOZ but as a professional with years of experience in environmental issues.
As Hanning left the meeting to attend another event, Spiegelberg followed her into the hall where he continued to loudly confront her about the issue as she left the Albany County Courthouse.
An Albany County sheriff’s deputy was present in the hallway during the confrontation and stayed in the county commissioner’s chambers for the remainder of the planning board meeting once the confrontation ended.
Tumbleweed is considered a nonconforming use within the APOZ and its reopening has been met with controversy throughout this year. Some planning board members, including Spiegelberg and David Cunningham, expressed frustration at the way the owner of Tumbleweed, Manjot Pandher, has been treated.
“How can we as a community condemn what this man has done for us?” Cunningham said. “This man and his company sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into that facility that was sitting there ready to pollute, and he’s had a rough time. Why? It’s ridiculous.”
Spiegelberg added the “man should be applauded for the way he has improved a bad situation.”
Planning board chair Shaun Moore also noted the business has been “nothing but an improvement to our county – the whole thing has been.”
Pandher said during the meeting he was concerned any sort of environmentally-conscious updates he would be potentially interested in making at the Tumbleweed site would be considered expansions, which aren’t allowed for nonconforming uses, rather than modifications.
Moore also voiced concerns the regulations would prohibit potential developers from making visual or environmental improvements in fear of them being considered expansions.
“If there’s new technology, better technology, new things that can protect the aquifer, and also at the same time if the owner wants to invest that money, we’re still talking about expansion,” he said. “If there’s a way to improve, let’s improve for the environment, for the taxpayer, for the property owner.”
The new regulations also detail the technical review process. After a developer submits an SSI for a property, the county “may submit technical information to qualified professionals for review.”
Kimberly Starkey, another resident who lives within the APOZ, expressed concerns about the burden the technical review could have on developers if it includes additional requirements or concerns not listed in the original SSI.
“I can see, perhaps, the merit of having a technical review in certain cases where the work really seems questionable or egregious, but to require it all the time, I think, is not appropriate,” Starkey said. “I have a real problem with requiring the developer to follow the recommendations from his SSI that he’s paid for plus somebody else, and that person can keep piling on.”
Hanning pointed out during her comments it is standard practice for geologists or other scientists to have their work or research reviewed by peers.
She added the Environmental Advisory Committee, a voluntary committee consisting of members appointed by both the city and the county, could be a tiebreaker between conflicting reports if needed.
Other members of the public expressed support and concerns about the new regulations, including members of the activist group Albany County Clean Water Advocates.
In a series of both written and public comments about the regulation changes, ACCWA pointed out the APOZ boundary needs to be better defined to ensure the regulations will affect the right developers.
The activist group also voiced concerns about development exemptions granted to residentially-zoned uses within the APOZ, as well as building additions that aren’t connected to sewer systems, noting those developments could still pose potential threats to the aquifer.
After discussion and minimal changes to the verbiage, the planning board passed the APOZ changes unanimously, and they will go before the county commission at its next meeting.
The changes will also be subject to a 45-day public comment period and public hearing before they can be formally approved.
Some of the measures, including the technical review requirements and conflict of interest concerns, were approved for all development applications regardless of their proximity to the aquifer.
In the same meeting, the planning board voted unanimously to approve extending the moratorium on development in the APOZ for an additional 90 days to accommodate the public comment period.