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Sunny Valley miner gets a victory in gold claim appeal

The Josephine County Board of Commissioners on Friday ruled that miner John West didn't need permission from the county to mine for gold on a property in the Sunny Valley area.

Miners cheered and opponents huddled to talk after the latest round of mining controversy in the rural community 15 miles north of Grants Pass. A crowd of about 100 filled the Basker Auditorium.

"They got it right," said West, of Brimstone Natural Resource Co., with partner Robert Stumbo. "They followed the law."

Steve Rouse, attorney for Rogue Advocates, which has fought every Sunny Valley mining project in recent years, disagreed, saying rules adopted in 2006 direct the county to regulate mining, at least in a 50-foot swath in riparian areas.

"Clearly the state has relegated regulation in riparian corridor to counties," Rouse said. "(Commissioners) seem to be saying they don't have jurisdiction over an element of the county's Rural Land Development Code."

Brimstone wants to use excavators and dump trucks above the high water mark of Brimstone Creek to mine for what West said is $250,000 worth of placer gold on a patented mining claim. The site is about 1.5 miles away from another controversial Brimstone project, where old mine tailings will be turned into aggregate, near Grave Creek.

It's another four miles to the Sunny Valley Sand & Gravel site east of Interstate 5 on Placer Road, where residents fought a plan to mine millions of cubic yards of gravel. Both of the projects were approved by the county after a long legal process that included appeals to the state's Land Use Board of Appeals.

What commissioners actually did on Friday was dismiss an appeal by Brimstone of a county planning decision in March that approved mining with numerous conditions.

West's attorney, James Dole of Grants Pass, said the conditions in the riparian corridor site plan review were inappropriate. The commissioners basically ruled that county planners didn't have jurisdiction to make a decision.

It's Dole's opinion that the site plan review has no further legal impact, and County Legal Counsel Wally Hicks agreed.

"The conditions are nullified," Hicks said.

Commissioner Simon Hare read a statement and adjourned the meeting four minutes after it started.

"We hold there is no local jurisdiction to regulate this particular activity, and that a developmental permit is not appropriate or requisite here."

Hicks said the Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Forestry and Department of Fish and Wildlife, all state agencies, will still have conditions for mining.

"It's not like he can go there and start mining," Hicks said.

The dozen or so households on Brimstone Road are not happy.

"It's right front and center of our property," said Steve McNamara, Brimstone resident who worries about trucks and safety and noise. "We have 12 residents, and it's a dead-end road."

Rouse said the commissioners' Friday decision doesn't make legal sense.

"We're sorting through this very unusual set of events with our attorneys, and we will pursue this by all means necessary to make sure county and state laws are complied with," Rouse said. "The whole way the application is being approached, and the way the county is interpreting it is making things difficult and confusing."

The pro-mining crowd in attendance considered Friday's decision by commissioners a victory, two days after they were losing their right to use suction dredges on most waterways in the area, after a bill passed in Salem.

"A certain amount of mining activity has to be, or should be allowed, before you get into this whole bureaucratic hassle," said Tom Kitchar of Cave Junction.