Spurred to action by a much-debated environmental impact report that favored establishing a strip mine near Temecula, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone today introduced a proposal to make the county responsible for selecting what firms should be used to conduct environmental studies of private projects.
Stone's "Facilitate Accredited Impartial Required Studies Competently Ordered by Riverside County Entities" -- or FAIRSCORE -- calls for the county Transportation & Land Management Agency to vet companies that conduct EIRs and decide which ones qualify for which proposed projects.
"Environmental documents are too important," said Stone, whose Third District encompasses Temecula and Murrieta. "This will make the process more transparent."
Stone's proposal came on the heels of a series of public hearings spread out over the last year concerning , just inside the Temecula Valley.
The project triggered heated public debate and verbal skirmishes on the Board of Supervisors, where Stone and Supervisor Bob Buster contended with Supervisors John Benoit, Marion Ashley and John Tavaglione to halt it.
Benoit led the pro-quarry side, saying it was needed to increase the supply of asphalt, gravel and other infrastructure materials in the southwestern portion of the county, which lies within Stone's district.
Stone, with the overwhelming support of Temecula Valley residents, contested the proposed mine based on a slew of objections, including an allegedly defective EIR that the supervisor and mine opponents said failed to account for a number of potential health threats -- most prominently, the diffusion of silica dust that could be inhaled.
The EIR, done to meet state compliance standards spelled out in the California Environmental Quality Act, was the product of a contractor hired directly by Watsonville-based Granite Construction Inc., the owner of the proposed mine site.
The city of Temecula filed a lawsuit in July challenging the EIR's validity. The ending the quarry project for good.
Stone said FAIRSCORE would allay future concerns about the legitimacy and objectivity of vendors that conduct environmental reports.
The supervisor said the county TLMA could come up with a "list" of qualified vendors to which projects could be assigned -- all at the expense of the project applicant, not the county, which would act in an administrative capacity.
Riverside County Building Industry Association CEO Bill Blackenship expressed reservations.
"At the end of the day, we want a transparent policy that will stand up to legal scrutiny," he told the board. "But we shouldn't overreact to one application that got a lot of publicity. The current process the county has shouldn't just be thrown out."
The owner of a small firm that prepares CEQA documents also raised concerns about potentially being cut out of the list of prospects because Stone's proposed policy would inevitably "favor large companies."
Stone insisted the criteria for selecting EIR vendors would not be biased.
"The bottom line here is ... we can't have the fox guarding the hen house," he said.
Ashley and Buster lauded the concept, while Benoit withheld comment, inquiring only as to the costs of proceeding with FAIRSCORE. A county official estimated getting the policy enacted would result in about $100,000 in county outlays.
Tavaglione was absent from the meeting.
The supervisors voted to defer further action on FAIRSCORE to Dec. 11, when more discussion on convening an ad hoc committee to work on the proposal will be on the agenda.