Discovery Channel’s ‘Gold Rush,’ ‘mining for ratings,’ faces lawsuit from Park County neighbors
October 18, 2017
The noise would start at 7 every morning and wouldn't stop until the evening, turning a rural neighborhood near Fairplay into an industrial zone, residents said.
The culprit: a reality-TV gold mining operation that they say wrecked a hillside landscape, ran afoul of its permits and shattered the quiet of their neighborhood all summer. In May, tensions boiled over into some alleged gunplay and the arrest of a local man for felony menacing.
Mining stopped last week for the popular Discovery Channel show “Gold Rush,” on the eve of its season eight premier on Oct. 13. But a legal challenge mounted by a group of 30 residents continues, aiming to keep the show from returning for another summer of mining.
Last month, Save South Park filed a lawsuit against the Board of County Commissioners of Park County, accusing it of "abusing its discretion" by granting a favorable rezoning for the miners against the recommendation of its own planning commission.
"This is not an appropriate land use decision," said Danny Teodoru, the plaintiff's attorney. "Here's a circumstance where there are people directly next to this mine and the impacts are felt by them in a very dramatic fashion."
County manager Tom Eisenman was out of town Wednesday and couldn't be reached for comment. Messages left for his assistant and the commissioners were not returned. Teodoru said the county had two weeks to file its response.
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The lawsuit also names two companies tied to the show, High Speed Mining, LLC and High Speed Aggregate, Inc.
The Gold Rush crew first started mining an old dredge site below Colorado Highway 9 in 2016. Not all of the neighbors share Save South Park's complaints.
"As far as the relationship they've had with the town, it's all been five-star," said Fairplay Mayor Gabby Lane. "Nice gentlemen, they come into town, they spend a lot of money, they don't cause any trouble. What more could you ask?"
The show itself, however, paints a different picture, at least for its TV viewers. The season's second episode, "Blizzards and Bullets," set to premier Oct. 20, promises a "rogue gunman" who "fires shots" at the crew.
That drama presumably refers to 35-year-old resident Aaron Borth, charged with felony menacing and reckless endangerment.
He was arrested on May 18 after three crewmembers went to the Park County Sheriff's Office in Fairplay to report that Borth accosted them and fired a handgun into the ground as they sped away in trucks, court documents say.
Borth denied using a handgun but expressed his "frustration" over the mining near Fairplay, according to the documents.
"They're not mining for gold, they're mining for ratings," is a common refrain among the unhappy locals. Either way, it was loud, and this summer it encroached on residential-zoned areas.
"All I've ever wanted to do all summer long is sit on my deck and have some quiet, and I couldn't do that this year because there was so much noise — it was unbelievable," said resident Ann Lukacs.
Gold Rush's supporters are quick to point out that Park County has always been a mining area, and that its crew is working a site that has been in operation for years.
But the difference, some say, is that the show's deep pockets have turned a once-sleepy gravel mine into an industrial-scale gold mining operation with dozens of pieces of heavy machinery.
"We think that a normal miner who is not subsidized could probably not really afford to do the kind of mining they were doing," said resident Krissy Barrett.
The ridge immediately across the highway from the mine is surprisingly dense with homes. Residents there say the sound of dump trucks and trundling boulders have registered more than 20 decibels higher than the permitted level at their homes.
"As far as what I can see and what I've been told, they've tried to make as many concessions to the close-by neighbors as they can, but it's still business," Lane said. "It's still mining, and mining is noisy."
Those residents also have the best view of what the mining has done to the land, ripping up stands of cottonwood trees and lopping off a chunk of the hillside.
"They've certainly changed the landscape," Lane acknowledged, although he added that the miners agreed to reclaim and restore the site once they were finished.
In the spring, the expansion of the mine site into tree-lined, residentially zoned land prompted the county to order a cease-and-desist against the Gold Rush crew.
But the trucks and excavators were soon humming again after the county commissioners unanimously approved a rezoning of 28 acres of residential land for mining uses in August.
The lawsuit alleges that the decision was pushed through with inadequate public comment and against the recommendation of the Park County Planning Commission, an advisory body whose recommendations are not binding.
"The proximity of residentially zoned properties has already resulted in complaints regarding noise and other environmental impacts," the planning commission wrote, according to the suit. "The proposed expansion of the operation would result in mining activity within 100 yards of residences on nearby lots, and no buffer or setback is proposed in the application."
Public comments poured in while the rezoning was being considered, falling along predictable lines of mining heritage versus environmental stewardship.
"These people have demonstrated no concern for the citizens and laws of Park County by casually violating our zoning regulations," one resident wrote. "Are we a bedroom community, a recreational community or a gravel pit?"
The U.S. Forest Service also weighed in against the rezoning, saying in a letter that the show had "increased dramatically" the number of people living on National Forest land and mining without proper permits.
More than 150 form letters in support of the rezoning signed by Park County residents were also submitted, although their brevity was a sharp contrast from the page-length letters of protest submitted by nearby residents.
"I've been doing this for 20 years, and that certainly seemed to be one of those applicant-generated form letters," Teodoru said. "I don't think there were 150 people at the meetings advocating for mining in a neighborhood."
If the residents win their suit, essentially an appeal of the rezoning decision, the county could still restart the process and approve it again.
It's also not clear whether or not “Gold Rush” will return either way. That likely depends on how season eight wraps up, tying the residents' peace and quiet to the ratings.
"I walk around like, are you kidding me?" Lukacs said, chuckling. "A TV show is causing all of this pain in my life?"
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