- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- A MODEL LOCATION?: Concerned about losing his home, Park Hill Road resident Charlie Kleemann, one of Danny Oster's nearest neighbors, questioned the draft environmental impact report he says watered down the reality of increased truck traffic on Highway 58, effects of blasting, and aesthetic quality.
It's called the "Gateway to the Carrizo," but many people know Santa Margarita as a unique community where neighbors look out for each other while also trying to stay out of each others' business. About 11 miles north of the city of San Luis Obispo, a strong social libertarian wind blows through the diverse rural town of ranchers, artisans, craftsmen, and educators.
"I've always thought of it as a community of independent thinkers—a place where cowboys and hippies can live side by side," one resident told New Times.
But those alliances have recently been tested over a single proposal for two parcels of private property about two miles east of town. For the last four years, Las Pilitas Resources, LLC and Oster Living Trust have sought a county permit to mine the mountainside for granite off a stretch of land alongside Highway 58, essentially following the same model as the Hanson Quarry near Garden Farms just to the north.
Even many of the significant number of residents opposed to the project can't blame the applicants for trying. After all, the land is known by the county as a mineral source, strip mining is a permissible use, and the applicants—who are locals, not outsiders—seem to have organized the perfect business model and struck a sweet deal with the landowner in the process.
So why would anyone in a town of property rights advocates want to get in the way of the rights of another to do what he wishes on his land?
The draft environmental impact report (EIR) was released in April of this year. Since then, it's generated a level of interest and public comment that Murray Wilson, environmental resource specialist with the county planning department, cited as the most he's seen in a proposed project: some 220 letters on the draft EIR alone.
All those comments have required more time than originally expected to take into consideration for the final EIR, Wilson said; the finalized document was initially expected to be complete ahead of the county planning commission's Sept. 26 meeting.
That hearing has been taken off calendar for now, and Wilson said he's not yet sure when residents can expect the final document.
Havin' a blast
The surface mine is proposed for approximately 41 acres of a 234-acre property nearly three miles northeast of town, just shy of the Salinas River. The applicants intend to excavate up to a half-million tons of granite aggregate material a year for anywhere from 25 to 58 years, depending on the market.
The granite and higher-quality decomposed granite aggregate from the site will be made into concrete, a vital component of construction projects used in a variety of ways, such as reinforcement and drainage systems. It's also a component of asphalt.
The project also includes the construction of a scale house and a recycling facility for asphalt and concrete trucked in from construction sites. Operation of the quarry and the recycling facility can drive anywhere from 198 to 273 truck trips per day.
Las Pilitas Resources, LLC is a local company co-owned by Steve Souza, also owner of Souza Construction; and Mike Cole, owner of Mike Cole Farms, a trucking company. Both are long-time residents and charitable members of the community. Together, their businesses employ more than 50 locals, according to their website, laspilitasresources.com.
The landowner, Danny Oster, and his family have owned and lived on the property for more than 100 years. His grandfather originally bought the land in 1905, Oster said. The terms of his lease with Las Pilitas, L.L.C. haven’t been made public, and Oster declined to comment further for this article, he said, out of reluctance to be “misquoted.”
The road to where the project stands today hasn't always been smooth. In 2010, well before county planners really sank their teeth into the proposal, the applicants were forced to abandon plans for asphalt manufacturing on the site after unsuccessfully lobbying for a one-word change in an existing land ordinance that would have made it easier to place what many considered an industrial project on rural land.
In April 2011, Benchmark Resources, the company originally selected to draft the EIR, was dumped as consultants following protests from residents, who argued the firm was nothing more than a thinly veiled mining industry consultant specializing in scoring their clients necessary permits "when faced with entrenched opposition," according to their website. County planning has since picked up EIR lead agency duties.
New Times' request for comment from Souza and Cole were referred to the company's project agent, Ken Johnston. To hear him explain the plan, a casual listener might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, the project site has been zoned for mineral extraction for more than 30 years.
On a recent August afternoon, Johnston took a reporter and photographer out to the wide, rocky hillside meeting eastbound cars dipping over a hill on Highway 58 to the west. He showed off a handful of strawberry-sized, milky white and speckled chunks of granite, exactly what would be excavated in the early phases of the quarry's project life.
According to Johnston, blasting technology has evolved over the years to minimize noise and vibration, and increase safety and efficiency. He said the company plans to use state-of the-art blasting techniques, including blasting caps fitted with digital detonators. When the explosives go off, they do so in a grid-like formation just milliseconds apart.
He said key components of the project are two ridgelines on both sides of the quarry entrance. Both, he said, provide a natural break from noise and vibration. Furthermore, the company said noise levels won't exceed those already made by the neighboring Hanson quarry.
Johnston explained that because a California State Water Project pipeline bringing water to communities in SLO and Santa Barbara counties runs through the property, the quarry would use no state water. Johnston said a riparian well on the site, sourced from the Salinas River, will provide the water instead.
"Traffic was our No. 1 concern," he said. "We want to make sure everybody on the road is safe."
He explained that the company has offered to install speed bumps at certain locations, and that their drivers would have a better sight line to see over vertical humps in the two-lane Highway 58, which passes by Santa Margarita Elementary School.
"There's a lot of truck traffic that goes through the school now," Johnston said. "However, with our professional drivers on the road, they are going to know that there's a school there and be mindful of pedestrians in the area."
In addition, Johnston said the company has applied for an encroachment permit from CalTrans to widen Highway 58 at the entrance of the property.
"It's not going to create any more trucking because the market is only going to absorb what it absorbs," he said. "The difference is where the product comes from."
At the heart of Las Pilitas' argument for the permit to operate is their business model's ability to compete in the local market, but a 2012 report published by the California Geologic Survey is giving them extra ammunition. According to the study, certain production-consumption regions in California needs more aggregate sources to meet future demands.
The report studied 31 areas covering about one third of the state and which provide about 85 percent of the state's aggregate supply. It found that 19 of the 31 areas had about 50 percent or less of their estimated 50-year demand met by existing reserves.
Of course, many people around the state—not to mention opponents of the Las Pilitas quarry—have called the report's warnings overblown and the science that justified them flawed.
Though the Las Pilitas quarry will be stepping into an immediate market with two neighboring aggregate sources—one of which, the Hanson quarry, is applying for a 50-year extension of its operation—Johnston said increased competition for a vital construction material will translate to better prices, as well as savings to the taxpayer in public works projects.
“Prices have a tendency to go down, but of course we still need to make a profit,” Johnston said.
During the interview, he voiced just a hint of frustration over vocal concerns about the project and how it would allegedly alter the character of Santa Margarita.
"There is a lot of misinformation out there," he said. "Three years ago it was that we were going to drill into the state pipeline, that the blasting and the noise were going to force people to move."
Among other rumors and speculations flying around town is whether Las Pilitas Resources LLC has any interest in keeping the quarry—and keeping it local—should it be approved.
According to Johnston, the rumors are just that.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- A STONE'S THROW: Danny Oster's property rests alongside the heavily traveled Highway 58, and only 200 feet from the backyard of his closest neighbors, the Finnegans, who believe they’re being intimidated because of their vocal opposition to the project.
Drivers heading east out of town on Highway 58 can see that the opposition to the project isn’t backing down. Landowners have erected large signs on their properties to warn of impending changes to the landscape.
"Attention all area residents," reads one. "Your lifestyle, your health, your property values, your water source, and your safety are at risk."
"Proposed Oster/LaPilitas [sic] Quarry Project Property is less than 200 feet behind THIS house," reads another.
But the sentiment of the opposition can best be summed up in two sentences from a sign sitting on a grassy slope along Highway 58: "Wrong project. Wrong location."
That sign warns drivers passing by Charlie and Tamara Kleemann's house, on an adjacent parcel west of the Oster property. The Kleemanns have been particularly active in fighting against the quarry, submitting comments on many of the significant and unavoidable impacts of the project; most concerning to them is the noise from the blasting and from other quarry operations.
"They will be affected," project agent Johnston said of the Kleemanns, acknowledging that the EIR has stated the blasting would occur 20 times a year. However, he said those residents closest to the blasting site will be given 24-hour notice prior to blasting. "Is that an impact? Yes. But if they're notified, it's really not that big an impact."
The Kleemanns disagree, and noted that not only would the quarry have a devastating affect on their property values, but the noise, air quality, and overall congestion of the area surrounding their home for the next 30 years would necessitate them to move.
"We're just collateral damage," Tamara told New Times.
Noise from blasting isn't the only concern from neighbors and other residents who use the roads in Santa Margarita. In a letter commenting on the draft EIR from the SLO County Bicycle Advisory Committee, chairperson Josh Olejczak said that the trucks' route is heavily frequented by bicyclists, and that rider safety was barely addressed in the EIR.
Bill Mulder, a 12-year resident and bicycling enthusiast who regularly volunteers picking up trash along Highway 58 as part of the Adopt-a-Highway program, told New Times that while he takes no stance on the quarry, there are safety issues inherent in some 200 truck trips to the quarry site a day.
"As a bicyclist and a member of the community, I don’t play one side or the other. Both sides are my neighbors," Mulder said. "As far as just my little world, I’m all for some mitigation; No. 1 would be a bike lane on both sides and wider shoulders."
"It’s the wrong project at the wrong place and the wrong time," Park Hill resident Eric Booker told New Times. "It's ridiculous. You can't see up and down the road. How long will it take for one wrong move and someone to die?"
Booker said the residents have raised enough questions and poked enough holes in the draft EIR to show that land use for the property isn’t compatible with its surroundings, and that he has little faith in the Santa Margarita Area Advisory Council (SMAAC)—the volunteer citizen panel elected to make recommendations to the board of supervisors, of which Cole and other project supporters are members—nor county supervisor Debbie Arnold to adequately represent the interests of the entire town.
"Most of the people for it have an interest in it somehow," Booker said. "The whole selling point is, 'We’re good old boys, we’re local, and Hanson's not local.' Well, Hanson was local until they got sold out, and there's no guarantee that any promises made will be kept here, either.
"It would be very good for a few people, but it would be detrimental for thousands," he added.
According to locals, tensions rose further when, a couple of weeks ago, Oster’s neighbor Anne Finnegan awoke to find a surveyor in her backyard—a level dirt lot that abuts the Oster property at a steep ridge that separates the Finnegans from where the quarry would mine.
According to Finnegan, the surveyor planted stakes through her backyard, as close as three feet from the back of her house. When her son asked the surveyor what she was doing, he said the surveyor responded that she was marking the property line for a fence. She didn't say who sent her, but the answer to that seemed clear to the Finnegans.
"She said, 'I'm just the messenger.' And I'm like, 'So what is the message, then?'" Finnegan's son, Blake, told New Times.
The Finnegans are arguably the nearest residents to the mining site, and Blake is one resident who’s led the charge against the project, even going door-to-door to spread information to his neighbors.
"This is retaliation,” he said. “It's intimidation. They're trying to get a reaction from me."
When asked if the project has soured relations between members of the community over the years, Park Hill Road resident Roy Reeves absolutely believed it had.
"It definitely is because Cole and Danny Oster decided they're going to go ahead with [the quarry] no matter what the neighbors think," he said. "They pretty much made enemies of their neighbors."
"It's always a problem when any group of neighbors form to defend their neighborhood from attack," said Sue Harvey of the nonprofit North County Watch, which is opposing the project based on certain impacts they argue can't be mitigated.
One resident near the proposed quarry site put the decision to support the project over keeping good relations with neighbors like this: "If this project goes through, we're going to have to move out of our house. If the project doesn't go through, we may still have to move, because it'll never be the same."
New Times contacted several residents supportive of the project for this article, but only two agreed to speak or returned a request for comment as of press time. One resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said he liked the idea of local businessmen entering the local aggregate market—and with reasonable mitigation of impacts, the project should be allowed to go forward.
Elizabeth Scott-Graham, who wrote a letter of support posted on Las Pilitas Resources' website, told New Times that her support was based on environmental concerns, namely the opportunity to have another local source of aggregate, as opposed to local projects trucking their materials in from out of the county, contributing to more greenhouse gas emissions.
"I weighed the international impact of more trucks on the road, traveling further," Scott-Graham said. "We're all going to have to make sacrifices to combat global warming."
Heading for a showdown
Following the release of the draft EIR in April, county planners expected to have all public comment submitted and processed in time for the project to make its way before the county planning commission in September. Earlier this month, the county revealed it needed more time, and pushed the date back to October at the earliest.
And that seems to suit everyone who spoke to New Times for this article just fine. Such a hotly contested project is bound—no matter how the commissioners vote—to ultimately be decided on appeal by the county board of supervisors. Johnston, though he said he wouldn’t speak for Margarita Proud, said the applicants have put too much work into the proposal to take a planning commission denial lying down, indicating they would challenge a denial.
As for opponents, there’s no word on whether an appeal would come from their camp, but since the vast majority of the roughly 220 letters submitted on the draft EIR alone are against the effort, such a move wouldn't be a surprise to anyone.
And therein lies another problem.
For obvious reasons, county staffers don't want a four-member board of supervisors to make a determination on such a contested project. The county is currently awaiting an appointment by Gov. Jerry Brown to fill the District 4 seat once belonging to the late Paul Teixeira; the decision is expected some time late this year or early in 2014. Until then, a potential split on the board could waste time and resources. Even worse, said Deputy County Counsel Tim McNulty, could be the passage or denial of a project at the last minute by anything less than a clear vote by a full voting body.
"That's something we've been giving a lot of thought to, and it probably matters both ways," McNulty told New Times. "As a staff we would try to persuade them to commute the matter until they have a full board. It's always easier to defend a straight up or down vote."
He added that while the possibility of being sued is always going to exist, "you want the decision to be as defensible as possible."
News Editor Matt Fountain questions the quarry quandary. Quietly send quips to firstname.lastname@example.org.