Las Pilitas quarry loses appeal to SLO County Board of Supervisors

A crowd packed the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors chambers Tuesday for a hearing on the Las Pilitas quarry project proposed for Santa Margarita. Opponents of project held orange signs; supporters carried green.
A crowd packed the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors chambers Tuesday for a hearing on the Las Pilitas quarry project proposed for Santa Margarita. Opponents of project held orange signs; supporters carried green. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A  battle over whether to allow a new gravel quarry that would bring hundreds of truck trips rumbling through Santa Margarita each day ended Tuesday when a divided San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors upheld a Planning Commission decision to deny the project.

The all-day hearing drew 60 public speakers and a standing-room-only crowd that spilled out into the lobby of the County Government Center for much of the day.

When the 3-2 vote over the proposed Las Pilitas rock quarry finally came at 8:45 p.m., the audience erupted in applause.

The supervisors affirmed the Planning Commission’s February decision denying the project  based on negative impacts to traffic, noise and safety, as well as land use incompatibility and impacts to aesthetics, including visual impacts that could affect the character of Santa Margarita.

“It would be a grave mistake to (approve the project),” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. “What’s the overriding need here? Why would we even try to fit a square peg into a round hole?”

Gibson voted alongside supervisors Adam Hill and Frank Mecham to uphold the commission’s denial, while supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton dissented.

“We’re talking about material that could be used at a less-expensive rate to make bike lanes and make roads safer,” Arnold said in her argument favoring the mine. "I'm happy that the project could include recycled materials. These materials can be used toward building roads."

The intent of the applicant, partners Mike Cole and Steve Souza of Las Pilitas Resources LLC, was to extract 500,000 tons per year of aggregate — material composed of sand and gravel particles — to use for a variety of landscaping, walling and other construction purposes.

The project was proposed for a site 3 miles northeast of Santa Margarita on the north side of Highway 58, just east of the Salinas River at 6660 Calf Canyon Highway.

Trucks would carry materials through the heart of town, past businesses and homes, and past Santa Margarita Elementary School — which many residents said could be too dangerous.

Michael Blank of Santa Margarita told the supervisors that he knows the Cole family and considers them a hardworking family who would make good neighbors. But he opposed the project because of safety hazards.

“You can’t mitigate the death of a child,” said Blank, referring to the potential for truck traffic through a school zone.

County staff estimated an average of 273 new truck trips per day along Highway 58 through the heart of town — a number the project applicant argued was grossly exaggerated.

The consultant for the applicant, Don Ritter, said a more realistic average would be 160 truck trips per day with a maximum of 270 truck trips per day.

“We never agreed that the county’s number of truck trips was accurate, and every attempt we’ve made to correct that misperception has gone unheeded,” Ritter said.

Ritter said the applicant was prepared to fund a crossing guard — equipped with a two-way radio with the quarry — to help children cross the street near Santa Margarita Elementary School, provide funding for community improvements, build a pedestrian island and provide decomposed granite for a trail.

One public speaker compared those offered contributions to “a bribe.”

Babak Naficy, the lawyer representing a community group opposed to the project, Margarita Proud, questioned Ritter’s numbers.

“Their wording is very careful in the promise to max out at 270,” Naficy said. “They don’t account for the trucks that will be bringing in recycled materials.”

Compton and county environmental resource specialist Rob Fitzroy disagreed on the level of need for the aggregate the quarry would produce. Compton said a state report shows that  126 million tons of nonconcrete grade aggregate is needed over the next 50 years, which means the quarry would provide a valuable material for state construction needs.

“There is a need, and I’ve gotten answers from the state that we have a need for this material,” Compton said.

But Fitzroy said concrete-grade material — which requires an additional level of processing than what Las Pilitas proposed to undertake — is in much higher demand and a more urgent need because it could run out by 2026, according to the report.

Fitzroy also said the report doesn’t remove authority from local jurisdictions to decide whether to allow mines.

Some speakers said they supported Las Pilitas because it would add jobs and provide a new source of building and landscaping materials. They also said the issue was a matter of property rights.

“I believe it’s better to have aggregate coming from here in the county rather than trucking it in, using Highway 46 or some other route,” Santa Margarita resident John Joyner said. “This project serves the best interest of the county.”

But others cited the dangers and negative impacts to the community, including bicycle safety and the town’s tranquility.

“You can’t carry on a conversation, eating at a local restaurant or drinking coffee at a local coffee shop, with trucks passing by and breaking, idling and then accelerating on our main street,” Janice Carr said. “You won’t be able to hear. What will happen to those businesses with the added trucks?”

Speakers argued both sides of the visual impacts, but opponents cited the quarry’s proximity to town and their desire to keep a rural, natural setting.

Hill anticipated the decision would lead to a lawsuit by the applicant, but he agreed with Gibson that there was no overriding need for a gravel quarry and that the impacts to Santa Margarita would be too great.

“I’m not convinced there’s any critical shortage of aggregate to justify this many truck trips through this town,” Hill said. “There isn’t a critical shortage in the same way we have a shortage of water. There’s been a real stretch here to make those kinds of analogies.”