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Liberty annexation proceeds

An outpouring of residents and activists prompted the Temecula City Council December 9 to press ahead with hotly contested plans to block a proposed surface mine by annexing 4,997 acres of granite-strewn hillsides.

A five-and-a-half-hour emotion-laden hearing on the proposed Santa Margarita Canyon annexation – which includes the controversial Liberty Quarry site – attracted about 165 people and was capped by unanimous council votes moments before midnight.

But the hearing, which attracted a smaller audience than a Nov. 19 Planning Commission review, did not mark the end of the long-running clash. In about four to five months the debate will head to a Riverside County boundary-setting agency for a final decision.

“We’re going to have to have 1,000 people there,” Mayor Mike Naggar said in his closing remarks. “We’re going to have to have busloads [of supporters].”

Naggar and some other speakers likened the annexation area to Yosemite National Park and their efforts to those of famed preservationist John Muir.

He said perhaps a future ballot measure is needed to let voters decide whether a mine or other commercial development should ever be allowed in that area.

Conversely, annexation foes and the developer of the proposed mine complained the city was torpedoing landowners’ rights to revive a jobs- and tax-revenue rich industry that dates back to Temecula’s pioneer era.

“We’ve made it clear that we are opposed to the annexation and we consider it a taking of our private property,” said Gary Johnson, aggregate resource development manager for Granite Construction Co., which would operate the 414-acre mine Liberty Quarry.

Granite plans to excavate more than 270 million tons of sand, gravel and other materials from a 155-acre portion of its site over a 75-year period.

The annexation area and mine site are south of Temecula city limits just inside Riverside County’s boundary. They are west of Interstate 15 near the San Diego County community of Rainbow.

The mine site cannot be seen from Temecula or Rainbow, but its access road winds into the hills behind a California Highway Patrol truck inspection and weigh station.

Riverside County Planning Director Ron Goldman said supervisors there have taken a neutral stance on the annexation. But supervisors in closed session cited “strong concerns” over the city’s environmental review of the annexation, he said.

Closed session discussions by governing boards are typically limited to litigation, personnel, labor negotiations and other legally sensitive matters.

Attorneys for Granite Construction also weighed in with legal opinions during the environmental review process.

Thus far, Temecula has spent or earmarked more than $363,250 on the annexation bid, including some legal fees but excluding much of its staff time, according to city records.

For the first time in such a visible way, more than a dozen residents of the Rainbow and Fallbrook areas took turns at the microphone to deliver sharp-edged comments.

Many feared being caught between a pair of surface mines, as Granite recently began operating the smaller Rosemary’s Mountain quarry along Highway 76 east of I-15.

Rua Petty, an elected member of the Rainbow Planning Group and the Rainbow Municipal Water District, described his bucolic area as “a community under siege.”

Citing the approval and permitting of Rosemary’s Mountain, Petty said the fate of the hills on the cusp of the two counties should be in the hands of the Temecula council.

Other speakers from that area included Jim Oenning, a member of the Fallbrook Planning Group, and Jackie Heyneman, a director of the Fallbrook Land Conservancy.

“We’re going to have our peace and quiet destroyed,” warned Larry Pearce, a Rainbow Planning Group member who heads a Rainbow Municipal Water District finance committee.

In all, about 60 audience members spoke in favor of the annexation or against the Liberty Quarry plan.

They said more than 7,000 residents, business operators and nonprofit group representatives have signed petitions against the quarry or indicated opposition in surveys.

Eleven speakers, including several Granite representatives, countered that Riverside County should retain authority over the area.

Final approval of the annexation by the Riverside County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) would thwart the development of Liberty Quarry because of a zoning change that would be imposed by Temecula.

A LAFCO denial of the annexation would keep land use authority for the area – and decision-making powers over the quarry plan – in the hands of Riverside County planning commissioners and supervisors.

If approved, the proposed annexation would add approximately seven square miles to Temecula’s current 30-square-mile perimeter.

The annexed area would include the sprawling Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve and scattered private tracts that together contain about six homes.

Another 81 homes could be built on the scattered parcels of privately owned land, according to city reports.

City officials say the need to preserve vanishing open space is a key goal of their annexation plan.

Granite officials and a loose-knit group called Friends of Liberty Quarry, which was represented at Tuesday’s hearing, said the mine would bring 100 jobs and pump more than $300 million in future tax revenue into the lagging state and county economies.

They argued that nearly all the targeted area would remain open space even if it remains under county jurisdiction.

In the end, several Temecula council members said the potential risks to the area’s environment and the sensitive ecological reserve would outweigh any economic gains derived from the mine.

They also cited the area’s pristine beauty and the desire to gain local control over the region.

“This is a very special location over here that we’re thinking about annexing,” Councilman Chuck Washington said in his closing remarks. “To me, it seems the [environmental] cost is outweighing the benefits for my residents.”

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