Riverside County supervisors today will debate a controversial plan to allow mining projects — including one vigorously opposed by residents of the Temecula Valley — to receive expedited scrutiny using a “fast-track” approval process.
Board of Supervisors Chairman John Tavaglione, along with Supervisors Marion Ashley and John Benoit, voted in July to draft an ordinance that would qualify surface mining and reclamation projects for fast-track reviews. Today’s meeting will be the first public hearing on the proposed ordinance.
The three supervisors cast their votes in favor of fast-tracking in the face of criticism from scores of opponents to the Liberty Quarry.
The board voted down that proposed 414-acre mining operation at Rainbow Canyon Road and Interstate 15 in February. However, three months later, the swing voter against the project, Tavaglione, sided with Ashley and Benoit in certifying an environmental impact report that concluded many of the mine’s negatives could be mitigated.
By accepting the EIR, the county left open the door for Watsonville-based Granite Construction to return with a modified plan for mining the site, and the company did just that, proposing a scaled-down version of its original quarry.
The company asked the Department of Planning to consider fast-tracking its application for permits. However, county ordinances do not allow for expedited vetting of proposed mines.
At the same time as Granite’s announcement, Benoit introduced a proposal to revise county regulations so that mines, too, can receive fast-track approval, meaning a project could be out of the review stage and voted on by the board in 90 days.
Opponents of Liberty Quarry believe the pit mine would produce health-damaging levels of silica dust, mar area aesthetics, ruin rural peace, add to road congestion and permanently alter landscapes that the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians consider sacred.
The city of Temecula is suing the county to have the EIR invalidated.
Speakers at the July meeting — even Supervisor Jeff Stone, whose district encompasses Temecula — asked Benoit to respect district boundaries by tabling any plans to further Granite’s interests.
Benoit replied that the company had been a “friend” to the Coachella Valley, providing steady jobs and respecting environmental concerns for
decades. He denied receiving anything more than “modest” campaign contributions from the company over the last three years.
The supervisor reiterated his support for the Liberty Quarry, noting that having a site producing construction-grade aggregate — asphalt and gravel — in southwest Riverside County would dramatically reduce the amount of truck traffic countywide and lower the cost of residential and commercial building in the region.
Stone retorted that 70 percent of the aggregate would be going to neighboring San Diego County.
“I promise you that this project will not reduce unemployment by one-thousandth of one percent,” the supervisor said. “This is all smoke and
mirrors … We cannot sacrifice the health and welfare of the citizens of this county.”
Tavaglione, who is running for a congressional seat, said he would support implementing fast-track authorizations for “every project in the
county” to slash unemployment.
More than 60 permanent jobs would be created at the quarry site, with several hundred indirect jobs resulting from the project, according to the company.
Currently, some commercial projects can be fast-tracked if they create 40 or more full-time jobs, result in at least $5 million in capital investment or generate at least $12.5 million taxable sales.