Traffic fears near quarry become reality, neighbors say

County posts lower ‘advisory’ speed limit in one area after complaints

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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The winding, two-lane county roads that connect Yacolt Mountain to State Highway 503 weren’t built to handle loaded gravel trucks traveling at 50 mph.

In 2002, Clark County hearings examiner J. Richard Forester warned that the roads weren’t safe for the volume of heavy truck traffic a proposed mountaintop rock quarry would generate. At peak production, quarry developers estimated that up to 410 trucks per day, each weighing 105,000 pounds, would haul rock and gravel off the mountain and through a rural residential neighborhood to Highway 503, the nearest state route.

“I conclude that this quarry is a desirable objective in the wrong place because in this instance, it cannot be served by adequate roads,” Forester wrote. “Safety will not be furthered by putting more heavy trucks on these roads.” He denied a zone change for the Yacolt Mountain Quarry.

The following year, Clark County commissioners overruled Forester on a 2-1 vote and granted the zone change, allowing landowner Brent Rotschy and mining company J.L. Storedahl & Sons to develop a 100-acre quarry to provide aggregate for road construction.

As a condition of granting the permit, the county said the intersection of Highway 503 and Northeast Gabriel Road must be improved.

“The problem was that Gabriel Road came into 503 at a sharp angle, making it difficult for large trucks to safely make the turn onto 503,” said Steve Schulte, transportation manager for the Clark County Department of Public Works. But six years after the permit was granted, the intersection improvements at Gabriel Road have not been made.

Instead, since the quarry began operating in September 2008, loaded trucks — some owned by Storedahl and some by its contractors — have made the trip south on Northeast Kelly Road to Lucia Falls Road and on to Highway 503. Under a binding covenant, only empty trucks are allowed to use the Gabriel Road intersection until the improvements are made.

The speed limit on Kelly Road is 50 mph. Some people who live near the mountain say that’s too fast for the loaded double-trailer rigs to travel on a road also used by school buses, wildlife and people who have to cross to pick up their mail and newspapers. They say sight distances are inadequate and serious accidents are just waiting to happen.

“When I come up here, I drive 40 mph,” said Howard Jones, whose driveway fronts on Kelly Road. “Every night, I’ve got four deer that sleep in my orchard. They’re always in the road. Deer get run over all the time on this road. The lady next door almost got hit picking up her mail. “

More than once, Jones said, he has had to dive into the roadside ditch on Kelly Road to avoid getting hit by a gravel truck.

At one point, the county asked the local postmaster to require some Kelly Road residents to move their mailboxes and newspaper boxes so they wouldn’t have to cross against heavy truck traffic. The postmaster refused, and told the county to slow down traffic instead.

Schulte acknowledges that the county made the request. “We can’t slow down the traffic for mailboxes,” he said.

Clark County Commission Chairman Tom Mielke says the record shows 50 mph is a safe speed on Kelly Road, even with the heavy trucks.

“I come from 18 years of owning a trucking company,” he said. “Commissioner (Marc) Boldt comes from 18 years of driving a truck. We know what trucks can and cannot do. Sometimes trucks have the ability to do what people don’t think they can do.”

Axel Swanson, a policy specialist for the commissioners, said the county can’t reduce the speed limit on Kelly Road without opening up the question of appropriate speed limits on all the county’s rural roads.

Instead, the county agreed this year to put up a new sign with an “advisory” speed limit of 35 miles per hour at one particularly sharp curve on Kelly where sight distance is limited.

Schulte said putting up more speed “advisories” would actually make Kelly Road less safe. “Drivers will get anxious and back up behind trucks going 35 mph, and you’ll see unsafe passing. The county likes to see an orderly flow.”

The new sign was partially effective, Jones said. After it went up, “Storedahl slowed down its trucks. It’s the independents that come down the hill at 50 mph on a 6 degree to 8 degree slope.”

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The situation on Kelly Road is the result of a series of missteps and missed opportunities.

Rotschy Inc. was supposed to work with the state Department of Transportation to make the Gabriel Road intersection safer. But in 2006, WSDOT notified the quarry owner that the state would complete the project on its own. Then, shortly before the quarry was scheduled to start operating in 2008, the state notified the county that it didn’t have adequate funding and was canceling the intersection improvements.

“At that point, because there was limited time for the quarry to get the intersection improvements made, county staff started working with the quarry on an alternative approach,” Schulte said.

Brent Rotschy agreed to move ahead as quickly as possible to make the improvements on his own. That required him to acquire a private parcel on the north side of the intersection. But the owner of the property, Russell Goff, refused to sell. Goff said in a written statement that Rotschy approached him just four days after the death of Goff’s father and tried to pressure him to sign a land sale agreement.

“I didn’t feel it was pressure at all, other than it left me in a real bad spot, it left Storedahl in a real bad spot, it left the county in a real bad spot,” Rotschy said.

The improvements were supposed to be completed by Aug. 31, 2009. Construction is now scheduled for the summer of 2012 under a partnership involving the county, WSDOT, Rotschy Inc. and Storedahl.

In the meantime, neighbors continue to press county commissioners to do something about traffic safety on Kelly Road. Jones has photographed gravel trucks crossing into oncoming traffic lanes in an attempt to negotiate the turn onto Lucia Falls Road. He photographed one truck after it plowed into a ditch trying to make the turn.

“We understand that at some rural locations, longer trucks do occasionally track off of the roadway pavement,” Schulte said. “But that situation occurs for logging trucks, rock trucks, moving vans, and other types of long vehicles and equipment.”

Accident rates on roads in the area are on par with those on other rural roads, Schulte said.

“We’ve only had one reported truck crash in recent years,” he said. “The character of Kelly Road has changed, but it is not unsafe based on our own observations. The county has treated Yacolt Mountain Quarry and its operator just as we would any other developer. The county prefers to work both as a problem solver and as a regulator, but it will not compromise public safety.”

•••

Beyond safety issues, Yacolt Mountain neighborhood activist David Rogers says county taxpayers have paid a high price for the surfacing of the Yacolt Mountain Road.

Rotschy and Storedahl voluntarily pay 2.5 cents per ton to the county for the rock and gravel they haul to help defray the cost of road maintenance. In all, they have paid about $25,000 to the county since hauling began in 2008 — about the cost of one recent repair job on the road, Rogers said. Another payment is due soon, bringing their total contribution to about $40,000

This year, both Gabriel and Kelly roads were chip-sealed and striped at a cost of about $350,000.

Swanson considers the alleged subsidy a non-issue. “Regularly chip-sealing roads in the county is part of the routine maintenance our road crew does,” he said “States and counties subsidize trucks all the time. Those same trucks travel state highways and federal highways.”

Clark County has more than a regulatory relationship with the Yacolt Mountain Quarry. Though its own road department is not presently buying rock from the quarry, Rotschy Inc. is the county’s general contractor on the Salmon Creek Interchange Project. That contract is worth $11.6 million to the company. Rotschy Inc. is also the state’s general contractor on the project.

“So it is possible that rock from that quarry is being used by Rotschy on the Salmon Creek project or other county projects,” Schulte said.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.