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Human sign draws backers, opposition


Last updated 5/15/2008 at Noon

Liberty Quarry opponents hoist orange pieces of paper to spell

A festival-like event aimed at cementing opposition to the Liberty Quarry project near Temecula provided an unexpected way for a cluster of mine supporters to join the fray.

Though vastly outnumbered and sometimes surrounded, leaders of the “Friends of Liberty” group verbally jousted with participants of a Temecula rally on Sunday. It was the second gathering of its kind in two years in which a human sign was formed to protest plans to mine part of a 414-acre tract south of the city and west of Interstate 15.

The appearance of four members of the Friends group, one of whom carried a pro-mine sign, irked many of the people who helped spell out “No Quarry” on a Temecula soccer field for an aerial photo.

Kathleen Hamilton, a De Luz resident and a leader of the anti-mine group, said the appearance by the Friends group showed “a want of taste.” She was seconded by several other members of the Save Our Southwest Hills (SOS-Hills) watchdog group. Some of the mine foes likened the interlopers to “party crashers.”

“I just think it was bad form,” said SOS-Hills member Linda Bartz of Temecula who, like many others at the rally, wore a bright orange t-shirt and ball cap to signify her mine opposition. Bartz said she has lived in Temecula nearly three years, but she missed last year’s human sign rally.

The Friends members defended their presence at the rally, noting that they were simply telling the other side of the story at a public park.

“We wanted to offer a dissenting opinion,” said Casey Evans, a Murrieta resident who described himself as a Friends board member and a University of California, Riverside, economics and business student who sees a need for a local gravel mine to serve the fast-growing region.

Granite Construction Co., which operates a mine in Indio and a recently opened mine near the rural community of Pala, wants to excavate more than 270 million tons of sand, gravel and other materials from a 155-acre portion of the Liberty Quarry site over a 75-year period.

Critics say the mine would degrade local air quality, mar the area’s scenery, threaten a crucial wildlife corridor and nature reserve, and increase the number of local trucks that carry gravel, sand and other materials.

Granite officials and project supporters counter that scientific studies have revealed few environmental impacts, the construction materials are badly needed throughout the region and Liberty Quarry’s central location would eliminate the need to import gravel and other aggregate from distant areas.

Sunday’s rally unfolded much like the one held in March 2007 at the same location, Patricia H. Birdsall Sports Park in south Temecula.

Last year’s rally attracted about 1,500 people, according to a newspaper story printed after that event. At both events, participants stood in designated positions and held bright orange papers over their heads as aerial photographs were snapped.

As was the case last year, children were again in abundance at Sunday’s rally. As part of the action, 5-year-old David Winter of Temecula found himself interviewed by a television reporter over why he and his family had participated.

“I want to grow up with clean air,” David repeated 10 times with his orange cap alternately on and off his head. Finally, the TV cameraman declared the interview over by saying: “OK. OK. We got it.”

David’s parents, Kirk and Heather Winter, said they moved to Temecula from San Diego County three years ago because of this area’s superior air quality. They said this was their first anti-mine event.

About 1,450 people took to the soccer field to pose for this year’s aerial photo while others remained at the sidelines to make announcements, provide supplies and assist in other ways, organizers said.

“I’m happy with [the turnout],” Hamilton said after the aerial photo was taken, adding that event organizers had provided 2,000 orange cards and 3,000 bottles of water.

She said the purpose of the rally was to again let city and county leaders know the depth of opposition to the proposed mine. Also, she said, it was to show elected officials attendance at public hearings often fails to show the amount of mine opposition because many workers or parents cannot attend those sessions.

“We’re building [momentum],” she said. “What gets the message out is the numbers.”

About that time, as Sunday’s event wound down, members of the pro-quarry Friends group began drawing the attention of rally participants, organizers and news reporters.

Three members of the group wore green t-shirts that extolled the local jobs, reduced regional truck traffic and other potential benefits that the mine could bring to the area. Evans wore a black polo shirt decorated with Liberty Quarry’s logo, but he underscored that he does not work for the company.

The rally was the first appearance of the group in such a public setting. But it was not the first time it has publicly weighed in on the quarry issue.

The group was among many that submitted letters as part of a three and one-quarter inch stack of documents sent in response to Temecula’s bid to annex the mine site and a vast swath of surrounding land.

If approved, the proposed Santa Margarita Canyon annexation would add nearly 5,000 acres, approximately seven square miles, to the city’s current 30-square-mile perimeter. Temecula will spend more than $275,000 on the annexation bid – including its legal fees but excluding much of its own staff time, according to city records.

The written comments were submitted in response to a draft environmental impact report prepared for Temecula on behalf of the annexation plan. The deadline to submit written comments on the annexation plan expired April 7. Temecula staff must now respond to those comments and perhaps make changes to the draft report before presenting it the City Council for review and possible approval.

Approval of the annexation proposal by a Riverside County boundary-setting agency could thwart development of the mine because of a zoning change that would be imposed by Temecula.

A denial of the annexation plan by the county Local Agency Formation Commission would keep the land use authority for the mine plan in the hands of county planning commissioners and supervisors.

In its April 3 letter, members of the nine-member Friends board wrote that they were “embarrassed” by the city’s proposed annexation.

“This annexation worries us because we believe it over-extends the city and does not provide any benefits,” the letter stated. “If this annexation is an attempt to prevent the Liberty Quarry, then it is time to stop placating the whims of a few and wasting taxpayer dollars.”

Evans and other members of the Friends group echoed that perspective and others as Sunday’s rally came to a close.

A woman who declined to give her name repeatedly asked Friends member Jared Minard of Fallbrook: “Why are you here?” She cited concerns over air quality deterioration that a mine could cause and complained that the project could further lessen her already declining home values.

Meanwhile, Evans and other Friends members fielded questions that were peppered at them by numerous rally participants and a man who said he fears a sharp drop in the value of his 23 acres of canyon and hillside property near the Liberty Quarry site.

Some rally participants shrugged off the presence of the Friends representatives as part of the give-and-take of the political process.

“That’s why they call it the First Amendment,” noted John Rogers, a De Luz resident who has participated in several anti-mine events and functions.


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