Also serving the communities of De Luz, Rainbow, Camp Pendleton, Pala and Pauma

Proposed Liberty Quarry will likely remain top local issue in 2010

A grinding controversy over whether to allow a granite mine to open near the boundary of Fallbrook and Temecula will continue to galvanize public and business attention throughout much of this year, leaders of both sides agree.

It will likely be months before the first round of public hearings begin on a proposal to extract 270 million tons of sand, gravel and other materials from an area south of the city over a 75-year period.

And the debate that has unfolded over several years could again be shadowed by a city bid to annex about 4,500 acres that surrounds the hotly-debated Liberty Quarry site.

“It’s a long process,” Karie Reuther, director of community relations for Granite Construction Co., which operates mines in the Indio and Pala areas, said in a recent telephone interview. At that time, she conceded that the project will likely keep its top billing as the most contentious issue in the Temecula area for much of 2010.

The last full debate that centered on the quarry occurred Sept. 24, but key steps have followed that set the stage for future hearings. The full scope of those hearings is still uncertain, as the city has not yet moved forward with a new annexation application.

“I think we’re going to get something from them, but I don’t know what the timeline will be,” George Spiliotis, chief executive of a Riverside County boundary-setting agency, said in a recent telephone interview.

Meanwhile, those in opposition and support for the project continue to dig in with letters, signs, advertising and press releases. They disagree on nearly every key point.

“As I pass by Rainbow and enter Temecula each evening I find the area breathtakingly beautiful,” Julia Tschritter, a Temecula resident who carpools to work in San Diego, said in a recent letter to local officials and newspapers.

“Aside from the health risks, water concerns, traffic and air pollution that the quarry would create or enhance,” the letter continued, “it would break my heart to see the beauty of one of the one of the prettiest areas in Riverside County marred by the quarry.”

Proponents reject such claims.

“We support the Liberty Quarry project not only because of the huge economic boost it will provide the region, but because studies have found traffic and air quality will improve thanks to Liberty Quarry,” Greg Morrison, president of the Murrieta-Temecula Group said in press release last month.

“We’ll be getting trucks off the road and providing a local source of construction materials for our schools, roads and other development,” said Morrison, who leads the business- and government-oriented group.

Some local residents like Cynthia Myers of Rainbow conclude that Granite is motivated by “avarice and greed.” Others like former Granite employee Jeff Bradley, a Murrieta resident, say it is “a company of values, concerns and responsibilities.”

The most recent formal step in the long development review process occurred Nov. 21, which is when an extended comment period closed for the quarry’s approximately 7,000-page environmental impact report.

The report was released in July following three years of detailed studies on air quality, traffic circulation, lights, noise, water use and other potential impacts. The comment period netted 219 letters that cited or raised issues or requested more data.

County consultants have begun to evaluate and respond to those comments and requests, Reuther said. A recent scoping meeting between the county and Granite ended with expectations that the final environmental report will be finished in the late spring.

If that timetable holds true, the first hearings on the quarry plan would likely occur in the summer. Those hearings would be held by the county Planning Commission. That panel would make approval or denial recommendations to the county Board of Supervisors.

The 155-acre mine site is wedged between Temecula and Rainbow west of Interstate 15. It anchors a rock-strewn bluff behind a California Highway Patrol truck inspection and weigh station near the San Diego County boundary.

The site flanks a sensitive San Diego State University nature reserve and research station that is split by the Santa Margarita River. The river, which is formed by the merger of several creeks, flows about 27 miles to the coast.

The potential impacts on the 4,281-acre reserve and research station – as well as wildlife corridors that crisscross the area – are a key focus of the environmental analysis and the opposition to the quarry.

Mine foes say Liberty Quarry would also increase air pollution, boost area truck traffic, mar scenic views and also deplete scarce regional water supplies.

Granite officials and other mine supporters cite a growing need for construction materials and a desire to reduce the miles that sand and gravel must currently be shipped to reach local construction and road building sites. They also point to the jobs and future tax revenues that Liberty Quarry would bring to the area.

As the development review process unfolds, another front in the fight could reopen. In Temecula, where a majority of the City Council opposes the quarry, a bid to annex than 4,500 acres of granite-strewn hills south of its boundary.

The original annexation attempt was denied by the county Local Agency Formation Commission on June 4. That hearing lasted nearly 10 hours and drew comments from more than 100 speakers.

Approval of the annexation request could have placed oversight of the quarry development plan in the city’s hands rather than the county. Granite officials feared such a step because the city planned to put a zoning change in place that would have prevented mining from occurring in the area for several years.

Temecula appealed that denial and tried to modify the request by removing the quarry site from the land that would be annexed. LAFCO members rejected that modification Sept. 24. Members of that panel later agreed that such a request would have to be made in a formal application rather than part of an appeal.

Thus far, Temecula has spent more than $365,000 over a period of several years on annexation-related studies, reports, application fees and other costs, city records show. Faced with the prospect of having its site rezoned, Granite officials said they felt compelled to spend more than $300,000 to counter the city’s annexation plan.

Temecula would need to pay an additional $9,200 to continue to press forward with an annexation proposal, said Spiliotis, LAFCO chief executive. Granite officials say they expect the city to proceed with an altered annexation proposal even though it is unclear if or how it might affect a county decision on whether Liberty Quarry will be allowed to operate.

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