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Temecula sues County of Riverside over fast-track policy regarding surface mining projects, including Liberty Quarry


Last updated 10/10/2012 at Noon

RIVERSIDE - The city of Temecula filed a lawsuit today against Riverside County -- the second one this year -- seeking to invalidate the Board of Supervisors' recent enactment of ordinances to allow fast-tracking of surface mining projects, including one heavily opposed by Temecula Valley residents.

In a 14-page civil complaint, the city alleges the county skipped over state-mandated hearings and reviews in approving ordinances 348 and 555, and that the Board of Supervisors is attempting to exceed its delegated powers by establishing a ''selective'' system of choosing which projects to fast-track.

''The city and its constituents and residents will be directly, adversely and irreparably harmed by the environmental impacts associated with (these ordinances),'' the lawsuit states. ''Beyond this, the city and its residents will be adversely affected by any future surface mining projects in the area that are fast-tracked and that have not been the subject of adequate, legally mandated review under the California Environmental Quality Act and the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act.''

County Executive Office spokesman Ray Smith said county attorneys were reviewing the suit, noting that ''this is one of the cases in which the applicant is required to bear the legal costs.''

Temecula is seeking unspecified monetary damages from the county.

On Oct. 2, the Board of Supervisors, in a 3-2 vote, adopted the two ordinances that revised the county's fast-track policy to include strip mines on the list of large-scale ventures eligible for accelerated reviews by county officials. The goal is to have a project vetted and voted on by the board in 90 days in the interest of job stimulation and economic growth.

Either the board or the county's Economic Development Agency director can determine which projects should be fast-tracked.

The idea of expediting mining projects was introduced by Coachella Valley-area Supervisor John Benoit, a supporter of the controversial Liberty Quarry, a proposed 414-acre gravel mine at Rainbow Canyon Road and Interstate 15, just south of Temecula on the main corridor leading into ''Temecula Wine Country.''

The quarry was nixed by the county planning commission last year after multiple hearings attended by thousands of Temecula Valley residents overwhelmingly opposed to the enterprise.

Watsonville-based Granite Construction appealed the commission's decision to the board, which voted 3-2 against the mine. However, in May, the swing voter in opposition, Supervisor John Tavaglione, voted with Supervisors Marion Ashley and Benoit to certify a 1,000-page environmental impact report on the quarry that found many of its potentially negative impacts could be mitigated.

Granite returned with a modified plan for mining the site, proposing a scaled-down version of its original quarry and requesting that the Department of Planning fast-track its application for permits. However, county ordinances didn't allow for expedited vetting of proposed mines.

Benoit immediately introduced a proposal to change county regulations.

Temecula filed a lawsuit in July challenging the validity of the EIR. The suit filed today focuses on alleged violations of state law in approving the fast-track ordinances, and ongoing violations by their operation.

According to the suit, the board behaved ''prejudicially'' by not giving the planning commission an opportunity to review the fast-track proposal and hold public hearings on the matter.

The city also contends the county was required by state law to allow the State Mining and Geology Board to scrutinize the plan, even though the Office of County Counsel advised the board otherwise.

The lawsuit alleges the board is violating provisions of the California Government Code by empowering itself to ''arbitrarily'' decide what projects will be fast-tracked without first going through the planning commission, and that the board ''abused its discretion'' by failing to document how or why the fast-track ordinances are exempt from an environmental assessment.

A status conference on the lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 10 at the Riverside Historic Courthouse.


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