In front of more than 250 people, possibly the largest audience in recent history, the controversial Austin Quarry near the intersection of highways 41 and 145 was approved by the Madera County Board of Supervisors in a 3-2 vote Monday evening, with a lawsuit all but guaranteed.
Supervisors David Rogers, Rick Farinelli, and Tom Wheeler, of districts 2, 3, and 5 voted in favor while Brett Frazier and Max Rodriguez of districts 1 and 4 voted against.
The decision came shortly before 8 p.m. after a nearly 11-hour special board meeting, called after the Madera County Planning Commission’s approval July 19 was appealed. The audience was split among those donned in red “stop Austin Quarry” or blue “I support the Austin Quarry” shirts. More than 90 people wearing red shirts submitted their names to speak in public comment, compared to 40 in blue.
Bruce Gray, chairman of the Madera Oversight Coalition, one of the quarry’s most vocal opponents, said he largely expected the board’s decision.
“That’s what we felt would happen,” Gray said. “The board is looking for money. It’s always looking for money. The board is ruled by money. They’re putting money over people, every time, every day.”
Gray said “chances are very good” the MOC will file a lawsuit challenging the project.
Michael Linton, the quarry’s project manager, said he wasn’t surprised by that possibility.
“A lot of their testimony today was for a judge, not for the Supervisors,” Linton said.
Linton added he felt Vulcan Materials Company, the nation’s largest aggregate supplier based in Birmingham, Alabama, has outdone itself in working to placate the public’s concerns.
“It’s a good project, the county’s going to benefit from it, and Vulcan follows the rules,” Linton said. “If we have an obligation, we exceed it, each and every time.”
At odds between both sides are whether the 671-acre site will dramatically impact traffic, with more than 60 truck trips per hour during peak operation, dry up surrounding homeowner wells, and add to pollution levels around its location about a mile west of the intersection of highways 41 and 145.
Critics, primarily those who live in the Madera Ranchos, say those problems are unavoidable as the project doesn’t provide proper mitigations, and worry their community will become a ghost town as a result. More than a dozen raised their hands during Monday’s meeting when a resident asked if they’re thinking about moving.
Supporters say the many changes made by Vulcan will help alleviate those concerns. They said even if the Austin Quarry was denied, aggregate is necessary to meet a growing demand due to the area’s incoming housing developments, and its projected economic benefits, primarily through jobs, fees, and tax dollars, will be significant.
Attorneys for and against the quarry, as well as county staff, provided their own data in favor of their positions, alongside their own hydrologists and other hired experts.
Some Supervisors traded blows with quarry critics at times. Wheeler claimed the MOC was being funded by the in-operation Madera Quarry, a competitor located on Road 209 about five miles from the Austin Quarry site. He, as well as Rogers, also accused the MOC of spreading false information. Gray denied those claims.
Many in red shirts appeared irritated by such statements, and several added in public comment they weren’t being paid to attend the meeting.
“This proposed quarry has turned into a political fight about two businesses fighting for competition,” said Mary Jo Stott, who lives about three miles south from the Austin Quarry site. “Just stop it already. This should not be about money, or politics ... the approval of this quarry will affect Ranchos residents for the remainders of our lives. We’ll be worried about water, about traffic, and the value of our homes. Please don’t destroy our lives, and our countryside.”
A 100-year site
The Austin Quarry will operate for a maximum 100 years, mining up to 2.5 million tons of aggregate annually. The county will receive a fee of 10 cents per ton for the first five years of operations, with increasing fee amounts every five years.
If the estimated 250 million tons of materials are exhausted before 100 years, the quarry operations will cease at that time, with reclamation work funded by Vulcan to restore the site for water and wildlife, completed within three years per federal law.
The quarry will employ between 15 to 40 employees throughout its lifespan, according to the Final Environmental Impact Report released in late June.
A 10-foot berm will be put in along Highway 145 to obstruct views of the 83-acre aggregate processing plant to the southwest corner of the 671-acre site. From Highway 41, rock outcroppings will obstruct the public’s view from the mining area. Vulcan also owns 2,000 acres to the west of the quarry for sound and sight buffers.
Some changes were made to the project since the Final EIR’s release, as noted by county staff at Monday’s meeting. One change is that blasting hours for the quarry will be limited from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., though truck trips can take place at any time as the company chooses. Of note, Vulcan agreed to loan $20 million to the county for work on Highway 41, paid back when the county receives some $100 million as part of the construction.
Linton said hopes are the Austin Quarry can begin operations in early 2018.
The executive summary of the project can be seen at www.madera-county.com/index.php/county-forms/category/773-austin-quarry-final-eir-06-2016.