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Santa Margarita quarry project is back — is it different this time around?

One of the primary concerns over the rejected Las Pilitas quarry was increased truck traffic on Highway 58 at the Santa Margarita Elementary School crossing. An application for a new quarry project has been submitted to San Luis Obispo County.
One of the primary concerns over the rejected Las Pilitas quarry was increased truck traffic on Highway 58 at the Santa Margarita Elementary School crossing. An application for a new quarry project has been submitted to San Luis Obispo County. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The battle over whether to build a quarry in rural Santa Margarita will start again, two years after the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors narrowly voted the plan down.

Backers of the controversial Las Pilitas quarry applied last week to the San Luis Obispo County Planning and Building Department for permits to build a 41-acre project at the same location — along Highway 58 near the Salinas River — originally proposed eight years ago. This proposal, however, cuts the project size in half, reducing the amount of material that will be pulled from the ground and the number of trucks required to transport it.

Opponents, however, remain skeptical because the new filing is an amendment to the original plan, which remains intact.

Controversy brewed the first time around over the potential that hundreds of trucks would rumble past an elementary school and through downtown Santa Margarita. Neighboring residents raised concern not only about safety, but also about the eye sore from ripping through earth beneath the oak woodland and chaparral-covered hillsides near rural homes.

Supporters contended the raw material could be used locally. The 500,000 tons a year of aggregate — material composed of sand and gravel — is highly desired throughout the state for landscaping, walling and other construction purposes.

Ultimately, the county denied the project based on negative impacts to traffic, noise and safety, in addition to disturbing the visual character of the area and creating “harmful and annoying effects” from blasting.

The Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors have changed in membership since the last iteration of the project was killed in May of 2015 with a 3-2 vote.

Former Supervisor Frank Mecham was the swing vote who joined Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson in opposing the project. He has since been replaced by Supervisor John Peschong, who as a candidate expressed his support for the quarry in an interview with The Tribune Editorial Board.

“I would have voted to approve the quarry,” Peschong said. “I think it is absolutely critical to keep supplies local.”

What’s unclear about the recent application is whether the new proposal, if approved, could result in the same project that was originally rejected.

A representative of project said the backers, Las Pilitas Resources LLC, listened to the community and reduced the size of the proposed project.

A letter submitted with the application described a quarry reduced in size and scope: Half the amount of material would be pulled from the ground (250,000 tons instead of 500,000 tons). There is no recycling facility proposed, as in the original plan. And the number of trucks would be cut by more than half, and they would travel a different route to avoid downtown Santa Margarita. They would still, however, travel past Santa Margarita Elementary School on Highway 58.

The description of the proposed project in the new application reads: “Construct, operate and reclaim a small 41-acre aggregate quarry with a maximum annual extraction of 500,000 tons and add a reduced project alternative to be evaluated in the (Final Environmental Impacts Report).”

T. Keith Gurnee, a representative of Las Pilitas, said the company submitted an amendment to the original application as a way to reuse the $600,000 environmental impact report it already paid for.

“Our proposal is the reduced alternative, and I don’t expect the supervisors to go for that 500,000 (tons per year) project,” he said.

Members of Margarita Proud — a group of residents who opposed the original project — are skeptical.

“What they submitted to the county is the exact same project that was denied,” said Charlie Kleeman, whose home neighbors the proposed project.

The county is in a 30-day initial review period that involves soliciting comments from other agencies.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

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