Madera County District 5 Supervisors Tom Wheeler held the year’s first Town Hall meeting Thursday, Jan. 22, in front of a boisterous crowd of more than 100 community members who came to the Oakhurst Community Center to voice their opinions on a variety of subjects.
Headlining the evening was discussion of the ever controversial Austin Quarry. The quarry, proposed to be built on the corner of Highway 41 and Highway 145, would be a 238-acre 400-foot deep quarry owned by the nations leading producer of construction aggregates - Vulcan Construction.
The project manager and Planning Commission’s Deputy Director Matt Treber was present at Thursday’s meeting to answer any questions about the process of the quarries approval but made it clear the county nor board had taken a stance on the subject.
“I want to be clear that it is not in the approval stage yet. At this stage we are just starting to compile those (public comments) in a readable format. The next step is to analyze those comments and prepare detailed responses to those comments.” Treber said.
Treber announced that the county and Benchmark Consulting Inc, the consultant firm hired by the county to develop a Environmental Impact Report (EIR), is in the process of reviewing close to 300 comments that were sent to the county during the 45-day public comment period which ended Jan. 5, 2015.
“The consultants are hired by the county and.....I want to make it clear that the document is not created by the county or the company (Vulcan) it is an individual consultant,” Treber said.
Benchmark Consulting Inc., which promotes itself as a full service construction consulting firm, was chosen by county to review all county and state requirements, review and develop the EIR, and review public comments before advising the county on the building of the Austin Quarry.
The next step in the CEQA process is for Benchmark to develop an improved EIR based on suggestions and comments acquired through the comment period. These findings will be presented at a later date to the planning commission to review and decide to wither approve or deny the permit. Then the EIR will be passed on to the Board of Supervisors for a final vote before the nation wide company could begin its building process. No time line has been given for the completion of the new EIR.
Wheeler and Treber danced around questions all night when asked about their stance on the project. Wheeler and Treber claimed not enough information had been made available to make a decisions. Both said they would wait to review the next EIR before making any decisions.
“I want to let everyone know he is not here to answer a lot of technical questions,” Wheeler said when referring to Treber. “I want to be clear that it is not in the approval stage yet.”
According to Treber, the county and board of supervisors will be given ample time to review the new EIR following its completion.
Treber said and executive summary will be made available to the public when all public comments have been addressed and a new EIR is completed but CEQA does note require a second period of public comment.
“It will be available on the county website and available at the county office but you can do that from home if you access the reports online,” Treber said.
The next step will be to send the completed EIR to the Panning Commission and Madera County Board of Supervisors.
Treber said the process is extremely long and asked for the public’s patience while the county and company meets CEQA’s criteria. Treber compared the length of the process to that of the recently approved Madera Quarry, located behind 22 mile house, took nearly 7 years to be approved.
“The process has been under way for four years now and they are at about the half way point,” Treber said. “You probably won’t see that final EIR for five or six months. Anybody who commented on the original EIR you will get a notice when the final EIR is published.”
Despite several attempts by Wheeler and Treber to deflect questions, which according to them required more information to answer, several community members expressed a distaste for the lack stance by either entity.
One community member Hank VanSloten said he felt stonewalled during the meeting and was given no straight answers as to the potential benefits and disadvantages of permitting a company as large as Vulcan to operate so close to his home.
“We haven’t heard anything about what we want to hear and they all have these people and we pay all these people money to evaluate. We don’t want 1,700 trucks and we don’t want dry wells,” VanSloten said.
When asked what he thought supervisor Wheeler should do to educate himself and better prepare himself to make such a controversial decision VanSloten said, “He should go to the MOC (Madera Oversight Coalition) meetings.”
VanSloten went on to say he was also appalled that so many people from the Madera Oversight Coalition were on hand but refused to voice their opinion.
“What amazed me most was that hardly anyone from the MOC made any comments,” VanSloten said.
When asked about their relationships with communities in which they work, Vulcan Projects & External Affairs Manager Barbara Goodrich-Welk said, “We are excited about the Austin Quarry project and look forward to providing long-term benefits to the community. As a company, we strive to be good and responsible corporate neighbors and are actively involved in the communities in which we operate.”
Other topics during Thursday’s meeting included:
SPCA in hopes of breaking ground:
Lylle Swanson, treasurer for the SPCA, was excited to announce the non-profit organization finds itself only $400,000 short of their $1.6 million goal. Swanson informed the public of happenings at the site which will hold the new no-kill shelter when it is completed.
“We can start moving the ground and get it ready for building,” Swanson said. “Our architect has gotten everything ready for planning. We are hoping that maybe June or July we have those permits in. We are looking froward to getting construction started later this year."
Boys & Girls Club:
Bob Macaulay and Peggy Decker discussed the importance of such programs like the Boys & Girls Club and talked about the need for more volunteers and donations to keep the organization running. According to Decker roughly 40-65 kids use the facility between 2-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and participate in art & crafts, sports, team programs and summer programs which included 19 field trips in 2014.
“We need the support of the community to be a successful organization,” Macaulay said. “We had a great 2014 and we are really excited about a 2015.”
To donate or to find out more about the Boys & Girls Club visit BGCOakhurst.com.
Ground Water Sustainability Act:
Johannes Hoevertsz from the Madera County Department of Public Works was on hand during Thursday’s town hall meeting to discuss the county’s newest ground water ordinance and who would be directly effected by the county’s new regulations.
“Only those drawing from the three basins located in Madera County will be effected by the new ordinance, leaving District 5 currently exempt from water meters. At least until state makes their recommendations,” Hoevertsz said.
Hoevertsz went on to say with Madera County currently on a list of extreme overdraft counties it was vital that a new ground water ordinance was adopted, and soon.
“We need to know how much groundwater we are using,” Johannes said.
With groundwater sustainability agencies being developed across the state, Madera County is leading the way with regulation. According to Hoevertsz other counties are using Madera as a guideline for what to do when it comes to passing ground water regulations.
Residential Curbside Recycling:
Emadco’s Recycling/Operations Manager Ashley Smith discussed Emadco’s new curbside recycling program which is planned to commence this year. The new recycling program will provide customers with recycling cans to be used for specific items with the intent of helping reduce the amount of waste being disposed in county landfills.
All recyclables will be required to be placed in a designated can (supplied by Emadco) and a separate truck will come every second week for pickups. A flier will be made available informing residents of which items are acceptable for recycle and which items should be placed into the trash.
“It’s going to help give you the opportunity to reduce the amount of garage in the landfills and help future generations,” Smith said. “Hopefully we get a lot of participation from the community.”
Bass Lake residents were informed that they will more than likely now fall under county trash ordinance that will require trash services to residents in designated areas. Smith was clear that the decision to include Bass Lake residents on the list of mandatory trash services was a decision made by the county and did not reflect the requirements of their franchise.
“The county are the ones making this decision and this was recommended by the consultants they hired to oversee the project,” Smith said.
Fireplace inserts and cleaner air program:
After leading the way in replacement fire inserts Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler has requested more more money be granted to those who plan to replace their fire inserts to better improve air quality. Wheeler said he had motioned to get $2 million more into the clean air program and was granted approval but the reimbursement has been lowered down from $1,500 to $1,000. Wheeler said Madera County was the leading county for utilizing the replacement program.
Also taking place Thursday night was the talk of firewise education and prevention. There to talk with residents was Madera County Cal Fire Battalion Chief Troy Cheek.
Cheek discussed in details what folks what the community can do to come together and protect one another from another developing fire like the Courtney Fire and prepare themselves and their neighborhoods for the fast approaching fire season.
According to Cheek this season will be one for the record books as California experiences its fourth consecutive winter drought.
Firewise Coordinator Roger Maybee was also on hand to discuss the importance of being firewise.
“This is going to be a worse fire season that last year…all its going to take is the starts. What we are asking people is to help us help you,” Maybee said.
Maybee reiterated the severity of clearing homes as soon as possible to prepare for fire season.
"This is community effort and it takes village,"
With burn days at a minimum this year Cal Fire representatives advised those with burn piles to prepare ahead of time so when a burn day goes into effect they are ready to burn.
"Ninety percent of homes burned down in a fire are caused by embers...it’s not always direct flame on a house. Unfortunately we lost a lot of homes this year, we are going to lose more next year, it’s a fact,” Maybee said. “Cal Fire can’t put a fire engine at every home. The only way we can stop that is by having a coordinated effort between home owners and neighborhoods. The only way we are going to stop this is if everyone starts taking responsibility and are doing their part.”
Wheeler’s next town hall meeting will be February 26, 2015 in Yosemite Lakes Park at the YLP Clubhouse.