After a contentious 4 1/2-hour meeting, a divided Riverside County Board of Supervisors today approved a proposal to amend county ordinances to enable expediting reviews of projects -- including the heavily opposed Liberty Quarry mining project near Temecula -- using a "fast-track" process.
Supervisors voted 3-2 to add surface mines to the list of projects that can bypass the county's planning commission and head straight to the supervisors for consideration -- a process known as fast-tracking.
Supervisors Bob Buster and Jeff Stone were the dissenting votes.
Dozens of people crowded into the County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside for the board's final meeting before summer recess, with many attendees addressing the supervisors about the controversial Liberty Quarry.
The board voted down the proposed 414-acre mining operation at Rainbow Canyon Road and Interstate 15 in February. However, in an unexpected turn three months later, the swing voter against the project, Chairman John Tavaglione, sided with Supervisors Marion Ashley and John 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. Last week, the company did just that, proposing a scaled-down version of its original proposed 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 virtually 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.
"This would be designed to allow for certain types of projects that have job-creating potential to have a quicker turnaround time," Benoit said.
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.
"Mr. Benoit, like a Sacramento veteran working on behalf of one of your largest campaign contributors, you've led the county to this shameful day," said Temecula City Councilwoman Maryann Edwards. "(By fast-tracking), you want to sidestep due process and avoid scrutiny. When you make decisions like this, you must think long-term."
Temecula Mayor Chuck Washington reminded the board that the city is suing the county to have the Liberty Quarry EIR invalidated.
"Why would you change your laws to allow impactful mining projects all over Riverside County?" Washington said. "This isn't a minor change; this is a major change. Mr. Benoit, can you imagine considering a proposal to make the entire Tahquitz Canyon a quarry after just a 90-day review? Fast track bypasses a valuable review process carried out by the planning commissioners."
Temecula resident and civic activist Paul Jacobs accused Benoit of setting the stage for a district-versus-district "civil war" by plowing ahead with fast-tracking plans.
Speakers, and 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.
"There's a lot of emotion here today," the supervisor said. "I'm surprised by some of the hurtful, unsubstantiated attacks impugning my reputation. But people are using emotion instead of facts."
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 western county region.
Stone retorted that 70 percent of the aggregate would be going to neighboring San Diego County.
"We need to do the right thing and not fast-track this project," the supervisor said. "Let's review it prudently and responsibly so there's not even the appearance of impropriety. I don't want this county to take over the headlines like that other county (San Bernardino) has.
"I promise you that this project will not reduce unemployment by one- thousandth of one percent," Stone added. "This is all smoke and mirrors ... We cannot sacrifice the health and welfare of the citizens of this county."
Tavaglione, again, was the swing vote, saying he supported implementing fast-track authorizations for "every project in the county," if such were possible.
"I'll be damned if I'm going to let this become an election issue," Tavalgione, who is running for a congressional seat, told the crowd of quarry opponents. "There are some of you trying to make it that ... We need to do everything we can to turn this economy around."
According to Granite, the revised quarry project would entail a 45-year operating window, instead of 75 years, as was originally proposed.
More than 60 permanent jobs would be created at the site, with several hundred indirect jobs resulting from the project, according to the company. There would be 160 fewer truck trips to and from the site per day; the total amount of aggregate removed from the mine would be reduced from 235 million to 174 million tons; the mine depth would be 300-feet less; and mining activity would be restricted to daylight hours.
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.
By the end of August, county attorneys are expected to submit proposed amendments for board consideration that provide for fast-track review procedures on mines, reclamation projects and other large-scale enterprises.