Neighbors battle over Santa Margarita quarry
December 15, 2014
By KAREN VELIE
As the application for a conditional use permit for a Santa Margarita property zoned for mining winds through the county, neighbors are taking sides in the heated battle over potential transformations to the community if the permit for the proposed Los Pilitas aggregate quarry is approved.
Both sides have made claims. Proponents of the quarry claim naysayers have exaggerated the impacts the project would have on the community while opponents say the quality of life for many in the small rural community would be permanently marred.
If the permit is approved, long time Santa Margarita residents Mike Cole and Steve Souza can construct the infrastructure for and operate a 41 acre rock quarry on property located on Highway 58 about three miles outside Santa Margarita. The applicants are seeking to produce a maximum of 500,000 tons annually, a portion of which would be recycled asphalt.
In step with Santa Margarita residents, some who have had heated arguments in Santa Margarita’s small downtown, public officials and staff have come to different conclusions about the projects impacts and whether they support or oppose the quarry.
Earlier this month, the Santa Margarita Advisory Area Committee voted 11-6 in favor of the quarry while county planning staff recommended denial of the conditional use permit saying the economic benefits do not override the environmental impacts.
In the 80s, a state geological survey deemed the site a rock resource area and the county zoned the property with mining as an approved use. Then in 2012, a California Geologic Survey report said California needs more aggregate sources to meet future demands. Rock quarries produce aggregate that is used in making both asphalt and concrete.
There are currently two quarries in the Santa Margarita area. Even so, developers and road maintenance crews often have to truck aggregate in from other areas.
Proponents of the quarry argue that it is environmentally cleaner to produce aggregate locally then to truck it in sometimes from four-hours away. In addition, another quarry could lower the cost of roadwork in the county.
Critics of the project have multiple concerns including noise levels, Valley Fever exposure, truck traffic, water usage and air quality.
According to the county staff report, if permitted, the quarry could generate up to 273 truck trips a day moved out on weekdays during daytime hours.
Las Palitas Project manager Ken Johnston does not agree instead saying the maximum amount of trucks would be 99 a day or approximately 200 trips.
Opponents argue that the trucks would create noise, endanger children at a nearby school, cause a constant stream of traffic and not provide three feet clearance to bicyclists which could result in traffic jams. Several homeowners on Highway 58 told CalCoastNews their windows rattle when trucks go by their abodes and the increase in truck traffic would negatively impact their quality of life.
Santa Margarita Area Advisory Committee Council Member George Sullivan said after five years of discussing the project with experts, the committee determined county agencies cannot restrict trucks from driving on a state highway. In addition, Sullivan said that county staff’s statement that the permit should be denied because it violates the committee developed Santa Margarita Design Plan because it does not require build outs on the highway, is not accurate.
“Caltrans has informed our committee that the design plan is specific to the buildings, but does not have anything to do with the state highway,” Sullivan said. “The county is not the permitting agency on any state highway projects.”
Several bicyclists have also spoken out against the project during public hearings and in letters to county staff and officials. The San Luis Obispo Bicycle Coalition said it strongly disagrees with the final environmental impact report’s findings that the impacts will be less than significant for bicyclists traveling along the narrow, windy highway.
“We also find the final EIR inadequate because it fails to address California’s new Three Feet for Safety Act (California Vehicle Code Section 21760) and lacks a defensible argument for why the Traffic Impact Analysis was based on passenger car equivalents rather than truck traffic,” Coalition Executive Director Dan Rivorie said in a letter to the county.
However, while the new rule says drivers must maintain a distance of three feet when passing bicyclists, the new law also states that if a driver is unable to give a cyclist three feet because of the width of the highway, the driver must instead slow to a reasonable speed and pass when doing so would not endanger the bicyclist.
In addition, if a bicyclist has five vehicles behind them, they are required by the vehicle code to pull over at the first safe turnout and let the vehicles pass.
Steve and Jan Owens live near the proposed Los Pilitas quarry site which abuts the operational Hanson Quarry. The couple is opposed to the quarry not only because of concerns of car versus truck accident as big rigs pull out onto Highway 58, but also because of an increase in mining noises that already impact their lives because of the Hanson Quarry.
“The grinding starts up at 6 a.m. and the noise from the trucks backing up can be awful,” the couple wrote in a letter to the county. “We are pretty patient and forgiving people out here, haven’t we gone through enough.”
Blasting noise and vibrations would be a “significant and unavoidable impact” to those living in several nearby homes, county staff said in a Dec. 1 response. Staff also noted that while the noise and vibration levels expected are within limits set by the Federal Bureau of Mines, noise and vibrations would be “clearly perceptible” to several nearby residents.
At least 200 people attended a contentious San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission hearing Thursday on the proposed rock quarry. One speaker wept during public comment because he said the quarry would put county residents at risk of contracting Valley Fever, a concern noted by others.
Valley fever is spread by the inhalation of Valley Fever spores which live in arid top soils.
Project manager Johnston does not agree that the project significantly increases neighbors to Valley Fever exposure because there is little topsoil in the rocky terrain of the proposed mining site. In addition, soil binders and water from a well on the property would be used for dust mitigation.
The planning commission will reconvene on Jan. 8 to take more public comment and come to a decision for or against the quarry. Any ruling made by the planning commission will likely get appealed to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.