Commissioners approve aquifer protection plans
At a heated public hearing, two of Albany County’s three commissioners voted to amend zoning regulations in the Aquifer Overlay Zone — the patch of land above Laramie’s main source of drinking water.
The Albany County Commissioners hosted a public hearing Tuesday evening, listening to arguments for and against proposed amendments to the Casper Aquifer Protection Plan.
Commission Chair Pete Gosar and Commissioner Sue Ibarra ultimately voted to approve the amendments, while Commissioner Heber Richardson denounced the changes, eventually storming out of the meeting before the vote was called.
Opponents argued that the amendments were unjustified, lacking conclusive scientific findings, and were placing all responsibility onto land- and homeowners. Those in favor of the amendments gave accolades to the commissioners for working toward clean water initiatives that will, they said, ensure a safe source of drinking water for generations to come.
Although 13 percent of the aquifer is protected underneath the Pilot Hill Recreation Area, the rest is enveloped by residential, municipal or agricultural lots.
The amendments establish a minimum lot size of 35 acres for future development with a maximum of one dwelling for smaller sites. The amendments also change septic requirements and allowances. These additions are entirely new to the aquifer protection plan, which had not addressed these issues previously.
“The Casper Aquifer Protection Plan has been in place for two decades, but has not yet been fully implemented,” said Paul Taylor of Albany County Clean Water Advocates. “These proposed regulations take two important steps towards that goal.”
Taylor and his organization supported the changes to the document.
“The first step is to more accurately define the Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone to prevent the use of hazardous materials in the area where they are most likely to reach our drinking water,” Taylor said. “The second step is to retain agricultural zoning and large lots to reduce development — and consequently, pollution from septic systems, road runoff, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers within the aquifer protection area.”
Data collected — by both city-hired and privately-hired scientists — does not support these concerns, opponents said. But some residents put forward their own data supporting their concerns.
George Monsson — a Sherman Hills resident with a background in geology and local government legal practice — had his well tested on two occasions approximately half-a-year apart. In the fall of 2018, the combined count of nitrates and nitrites was 8.4 parts per million (ppm). In spring of the following year, the count had reached 12 ppm — a level which is considered unsafe to drink.
Throughout Tuesday’s meeting, both public commenters and Commissioner Richardson argued that some tests underpinning the proposed aquifer protection amendments had small sample sizes or had highlighted only temporary spikes in nitrate and nitrite levels.
“A majority of this commission is willfully ignoring decades of water quality of the city’s municipal wells that show no significant increase of nitrate concentration,” Weston Engineering Geologist Robert Starkey said. “The purpose of these pseudo-scientific studies is to achieve political goals rather than to advance scientific understanding.”
Others argued that the new standards and requirements for inspections will put an undue burden on local landowners.
“You are asking a lot from people who have willingly — with their own money — tested their well on a regular basis,” said Cheri Frank, former chair of the County Planning and Zoning Commission. “The burden is being totally put on the county residents.”
County Commissioner Sue Ibarra said that Albany County may be able to connect residents to funding in the future, but no such funding is yet available or currently being discussed openly by the commission.
“The proposed amendments to the current regulation have been in the making for over two years,” said Ibarra, who ran on a campaign that included strengthening protections for the aquifer. “While these regulations are not perfect, they are a solid document of which to continue the work of protecting our aquifer. It will be subject to change as more information is acquired.”
Once the motion to pass the amendment was on the table, Richardson once again addressed the room for final comment. He decried the amendments and warned they would open up the county to litigation.
“Things happen that make us think that what we are seeing is the reality — but it’s not,” Richardson said. “If I thought the water in the aquifer was in jeopardy and required our action to do something to protect it — I would have done it before either of you two got here.”
Richardson claimed data is easily skewed by short-term effects from livestock and horses. He said that conclusive evidence pointing toward necessary action simply does not exist.
“You can feel good approving the regulation because it puts an issue to bed,” Richardson said. “So then you can say, ‘Hey you guys, this is good for everyone, you do this with us and for us. Except it’s not with us and for us, and you guys get to bear the burden.’”
The committee had several options for this item — approval of the amendments, disapproval of the amendments, sending the amendments back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for further consideration, or continuing discussion of the amendments.
Gosar and Ibarra voted to approve.
Throughout the course of Tuesday’s meeting, Ibarra and Gosar offered no response to either public commenters or their fellow commissioner when they were asked who authored the amendments.
“The nature of these rules and the way they are written — it’s going to result in litigation and it makes me sad because we can do better work than this when we do not have an agenda,” Richardson said.
Richardson then said he was done speaking but continued to interrupt Ibarra and Gosar, questioning them about their competency. Eventually, Richardson stormed out of the meeting.
“Since we know how I am going to vote — or not — I am going home to make love to my wife,” he said.
The amendments passed on a 2-0 vote.
“I would like to thank you all for having the decorum that this commission could not muster,” Gosar said.