Supporters blast delay on quarry in SLO County

Proponents of a planned gravel quarry east of Santa Margarita criticized the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday for slowing down approval of the project, which they thought was moving forward.

The county Planning and Building Department said it was delaying because of what planner John Nall described as a “public perception problem.” He did not explain what he meant by that phrase, nor did he respond to a later request by The Tribune for clarification.

The Planning and Building Department’s decision to seek new proposals for an environmental impact report (EIR) that it had already tentatively awarded to Benchmark Resources was inconsistent with the county’s own planning process and opened it to possible lawsuits, critics said.

Some called the move unprecedented.

In addition, the delay caught quarry proponents by surprise.

“I’m gut-shot by this whole thing,” said Ken Johnston, an agent for the applicant, Las Pilitas Resources LLC. He added that “a handful of people ... got to somebody and shorted the process out.”

Resident Elizabeth Scott-Graham, one of many people who spoke to supervisors Tuesday, said it was unprecedented to have an EIR contract withdrawn “on the cusp of completion.”

Sophie Treder, the applicant’s attorney, told the board that the public, which has “no particular expertise,” should not be intruding at this point in the process on what is supposed to be the county planning staff’s job.

Speakers also told supervisors that they were endangering good jobs for those who would work at the quarry and creating mistrust of the county government in the business community.

The would-be hard rock/aggregate quarry, known colloquially as the Oster mine, will, if approved, go on 23 acres four miles east of Santa Margarita.

In recent weeks neighbors of the project and residents of nearby Santa Margarita have created a group to stop the quarry. They call themselves Margarita Proud and have raised numerous objections, most notably about the 200 trucks that would go daily down twisting Route 58 and through Santa Margarita.

They also said the firm that tentatively won the EIR contract, Benchmark Associates, was too close to developers. They based their conclusion on their reading of Benchmark’s website, which outlined a talk Benchmark Vice President Bruce Steubing gave to a contractors group.

County planners denied that allegation, but over the weekend, they told Margarita Proud they would send out a new “request for proposals” for the EIR.

Quarry proponents said this could delay the process for up to a year, but Nall assured them Tuesday that a selection could be made in two months.

Nall said the county would send the request for proposals to 25 firms, including Benchmark.

Supervisor Jim Patterson said in an email to The Tribune on Tuesday evening that the project is “very controversial, and it is essential that all parties have confidence in the process and the information presented in the EIR.

“Having a greater pool of proposals will give us confidence that we have the best possible consultant to write the EIR,” Patterson wrote.

Nall said Tuesday morning that Benchmark’s bid was the best among earlier applicants. That led Supervisor Paul Teixeira to ask why the county is redoing the EIR process.

Teixeira said if Benchmark is the best, the county should use the company.

“I see a whole lot of busy work going on here,” Teixeira said. “Let’s get on with it. We’re putting up a major roadblock.”

The president and vice president of Benchmark Resources told The Tribune on Tuesday that they had been informed of the county’s actions only Monday.

Dave Brown, president, and Bruce Steubing, vice president, said they had signed a contract to undertake the EIR. The final step to make it happen was approval by the Board of Supervisors, which had been scheduled for Tuesday but was pulled.

“We’ve never had this happen before,” Brown said.

The contract was for $420,901, to be paid by the applicant.

Brown said his firm is not beholden to mining interests but instead conducts impartial environmental analyses.

Benchmark Resources provides information to help decision-makers deal with a given project; it does not take sides, Brown said.

Nall said the publicity has created a “perception problem” and it is “prudent to cast a wider net.”

Nall did not elaborate how redoing the EIR process would help the perception problem.

Margarita Proud has publicized the issue, and local media, including The Tribune, have picked up on it.

Supervisors took no formal action Tuesday because the discussion was not on the agenda and the Brown Act requires a 72-hour advance notice so that all interested parities can appear. Nobody spoke from Margarita Proud.

The quarry would be located at 6660 Calf Canyon Highway, on Highway 58 at the Salinas River Bridge.