Is it OK to build an asphalt factory on ranch land? SLO County planners seem to think so. In fact, they’re plunging through possible loopholes that could give at least one developer permission to mine rock, truck in petroleum, and manufacture asphalt in rural Santa Margarita.
County Environmental Resource Specialist Jeff Oliveira, however, said it’s not about finding loopholes. Rather, he explained, county planners are looking for clear direction on what they see as an obscure piece of language.
“It’s unfortunate that people are seeing it as an end run,” he said.
For some like Sue Harvey, president of North County Watch, an end run is the only way to look at it.
“This isn’t just a minor little tweak,” she said. “This is opening up huge areas of land to an inappropriate use, frankly.”
Here’s what’s happened so far: Las Pilitas Resources, LLC, applied for a mining, asphalt, and concrete recycling and asphalt manufacturing project on a piece of rural-zoned property owned by Santa Margarita resident Danny Oster. Under the county’s land-use ordinance, such uses are allowed—except for the asphalt manufacturing, which requires petroleum.
Technically, the ordinance only allows manufacturing on rural land when “the raw materials are extracted on-site.” This project, however, would require petroleum to be trucked in for manufacturing. So county planners asked county planning commissioners on Feb. 11 to interpret whether the ordinance means “all” the material has to come from the site or if a percentage could be trucked in. The planners proposed that 20 percent off-site material is OK.
But the commissioners unanimously denied such an interpretation and affirmed that all the materials must be produced on site. In other words, the Oster project (still in the early application stages) wouldn’t be allowed to manufacture asphalt without rezoning the property. Case closed, it seemed.
Then county planners added a caveat that questions whether petroleum should be considered a raw material. If it isn’t, nothing would prevent it from being trucked in under the current ordinance. SLO County supervisors will have the final say on the overall matter on March 9. They’ll consider the planning commissioners’ opinion to not allow off-site raw materials to be trucked in, though the petroleum-as-raw-material question wasn’t discussed at the planning commission.
County planner Oliveira said petroleum products technically aren’t raw, so it’s OK to truck petroleum in and manufacture asphalt on rural land.
Harvey and other critics argue that the interpretation not only gives ostensibly industrial projects a pass on rural land, but that there’s been no environmental view on the broader implications of re-interpreting the ordinance language.
“The big picture here that’s really important … is interpreting this to open up the use to make asphalt on ag and rural lands,” she said. “This is huge.”
Oster declined to comment on the project, saying, “Your New Times newspaper seems like you’re against everything I try to do.”
Why not apply for industrial zoning for this project? Oliveira said doing so is bad planning—called spot zoning—because it could create an island of industrial zoning in a sea of rural-zoned property.
Project applicant Ken Johnston told New Times, “We don’t see that changing the land-use designation would be beneficial.”