The Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission declined to further study whether the boundary of the Casper Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone should be altered.
Based on a memo from Laramie geologist Bern Hinckley, homeowners with water wells in the Laramie Plains Subdivision petitioned Albany County Commissioners to update the boundary of the aquifer zone, created to protect a fragile portion of the Casper Aquifer, which provides about half of the city of Laramie’s drinking water.
Under the county’s zoning rules, the county can change the APOZ boundary after undertaking “an independent investigation into the APOZ boundary” for a specific parcel if a “written request for review is submitted to the county together with a report prepared by a professional geologist or hydrologist, based upon and including verifiable scientific evidence, showing that a site-specific parcel of property situated west of the delineated APOZ western boundary of Zone 2 has less than seventy-five feet of Satanka Formation.”
The petitioning homeowners were hoping Albany County Commissioners would extend the boundary of the overlay zone to include about 60% of a 6-acre parcel of land currently under consideration for being rezoned as commercial property.
When the petition was presented to Albany County Commissioners on Nov. 5, the commission opted not immediately fund such an “independent investigation.”
Commissioner Pete Gosar tried to make that happen, but commissioners Terri Jones and Heber Richardson weren’t willing to support that without having an identified funding source.
Instead, commissioners voted to “remand the issue to the planning commission so they can look at the legal issues and the process issues and try to identify a funding source,” according to Richardson’s motion.
County Planner David Gertsch then brought the issue to the planning board, whose members decided on Wednesday that Hinckley’s memo didn’t provide enough basis for further study of the APOZ line.
Gertsch told the Laramie Boomerang on Friday he’s yet sure whether, under the county’s regulations, the planning board’s declination to fund a study means the issue will come back before the county commissioners.
In voting down the petition, planning board member John Spiegelberg suggested it was inappropriate for the planning board to even consider changing the APOZ line.
“I think it’s in our purview and authority to get into zoning matters, but as far as pushing the boundaries, I don’t think we have any business going forward, period,” Spiegelberg said. “Those weren’t set by us. Those were set years ago. We are not engineers or scientists or hydrologists or geologists, and I don’t think we have any authority to determine our boundaries.”
As the maps are currently drawn, only a small portion of that 6-acre parcel in question currently lies within the aquifer overlay zone.
The petitioners contend that current maps don’t conform to the definition provided in the Casper Aquifer Protection Plan, which states that “the actual location of the western boundary for the protection area is the distance from the Casper-Satanka contact that provides 75 feet of Satanka shale cover when the dip of the formation and slope of the ground surface are considered.”
Hinckley, who’s argued for greater protection of the aquifer, wrote in a memo to the county that it’s unlikely that there’s 75 feet of Satanka shale covering the bulk of the of the six-acre piece of land, which is currently owned by Luke Sweckard.
Earlier this year, a site-specific investigation was conducted by Weston Engineering for Tumbleweed Express, a gas station across the street from the Sweckard land.
That SSI indicates the amount of Satanka shale overlying the aquifer is 61 feet at the site of Tumbleweed Express.
Hinckley used that data, combined with the known geological contours, to conduct what he called a “straightforward geometry exercise” to determine that about 60% of the Sweckard property should actually sit within the aquifer protection zone.
Board member Dave Cunningham said he didn’t like Hinckley’s methods.
“I think substitution of approximations and assumptions for defensible data is a poor practice which will lead to erroneous conclusions,” Cunningham said. “And I would hate to defend that position in court. There is no actual defensible data to support a conclusion that the APOZ boundary should be changed. Examination of the available information strongly suggest that the APOZ is very well protected.”
Planning board member Keith Kennedy said it would not be prudent to have the county pay for an independent investigation when the property owner, Luke Sweckard, told the planning board that he’s willing to have a site-specific investigation conducted before the land is developed.
Hinckley was not asked to address the planning board before a vote was taken. The planning board did, however, specifically invite geologist Bob Starkey to address the commission. Starkey conducted the Tumbleweed site-specific investigation that was the basis for Hinckley conclusions.
During a speech lasting more than 10 minutes, Starkey panned Hinckley’s memo and urged the planning commission not to change the APOZ boundary.
He suggested Hinckley cherry-picked his data to reach a predetermined conclusion.
“Mr. Starkey came to the Board of County Commissioners meeting last week; he had a great explanation and he was asked to come tonight,” Moore said. “We hear from (water advocates) all the time. All the time. We wanted to hear the other side of it.”
Wednesday’s meeting was enough for Hinckley to call the planning board “a kangaroo court” before walking out.
The process by which the planning board came to its decision frustrated other supporters of the petition who were in attendance.
Richard Anderson-Sprecher, one of the homeowners who petitioned for the boundary change, told the planning board he never expected the board members would use only the Hinckley memo to make a decision on the boundary. Instead, he said he hoped the county would commission an “independent investigation,” as alluded to in the county’s zoning resolution, before any determinations were made.
“We were putting this out there, not with the idea that we had clear proof,” Anderson-Sprecher said near the end of the meeting. “We thought there was enough science for someone else to take a look at it.”
Earlier, in a moment of confusion at the meeting, a member of Albany County Clean Water Advocates came up to deliver public comment when the petitioners were initially asked to address the issue.
During that moment, planning board chairman Shaun Moore told ACCWA member Robert Kelly that, if the group does sue the county, the advocacy group’s members could lose their right to deliver public comments at public meetings.
“A couple of weeks ago in the paper, your group had threatened to hire an attorney … I’m gonna let you know right now if you guys hire an attorney, your public comments need to be directed to that attorney, where your attorney can bring them here and then we’ll need probably 30-45 days to respond to those comments … if you guys do plan to sue the Board of County Commissioners,” Moore told Kelly.
In an Oct. 3 letter to the county, ACCWA board members said that if the Albany County Commissioners take “no action” to shut down Tumbleweed Express, the group intends to “pursue the legal remedies available to us.”
After that warning from Moore, the planning board took no more public comment on the petition before taking a vote Wednesday, nor did the board allow the petitioner to speak until after the issue was decided.
When public comment did open up, ACCWA member Nancy Sindelar said she would not abide by any ban on ACCWA members from delivering public comments.
“If my group does decide to sue the county commissioners, it does not diminish my constitutional right to speak up in any meeting I so choose,” she said.
After the meeting, Albany County Clean Water Advocates President Sarah Gorin also expressed dismay by the way the petition was handled.
“We were shocked at the overt bias of the planning and zoning commissioners,” she told the Laramie Boomerang. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a meeting, including the three years I spent on planning and zoning, where the board did not hear from the person who brought the agenda item; and instead, this time, they started out with ‘let’s hear the opposition’ and they never heard the scientific argument in favor before they took a vote.”
Planning board members were frustrated for a different reason.
“We’ve reached a point where we’ve been through this aquifer stuff for years and years in here,” Spiegelberg said. “And it’s the same people, basically, that keep coming and we listen to them and try to remain objective and this and that. … There has been no contamination anywhere in that area, but they keep pounding and pounding and here we are going with the same subject again.”