The atmosphere at last Thursday’s Town Hall meeting, held at Yosemite Lakes Park, was relatively calm until Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler brought up the hotly-contested Austin Quarry towards the end of the evening.
“There’s a lot of good information going around, and a lot of bad information,” Wheeler said. “We’re not even close to making a decision on that quarry. It’s a very long process.”
Wheeler then gave the example of the time line for the Madera Quarry, located behind the 22 Mile House, which took nearly seven years for approval. Just recently, work has begun to make imposed road improvements, before the quarry can actually begin operation.
The proposed Austin Quarry site is located at the southwest corner of highways 145 and 41, with the quarry sitting about 300 feet from the road. In the spring of 2009, Austin Quarry put in their application, and in July 2010, the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was filed. Wheeler said he expects the EIR to be completed this May, and that it won’t be until late in the year before the project goes before the Board of Supervisors.
“I can not make a decision on the Austin Quarry until I have all the facts,” Wheeler explained, “and you wouldn’t want me to. I hope you understand that.”
One woman was puzzled, asking: “Why would anyone put a quarry there ... do we really want that on the road to Yosemite?”
“People have that right, if they go through the process,” Wheeler responded. “It’s a process that you and I have the right to go through ... that’s how it works in America.”
Wheeler said he has read most of the post-comment period letters (only five have been pro-quarry), and that the letters/petitions received during the open comment period will be included in the EIR.
He added that the letters mean a lot to him, and that he puts more weight on individually-written letters over petitions because, while he does read the petition itself, he does not go through the signatures.
About that time, Helen Brown, stood near Wheeler at the front of the room, waiting for him to finish answering a question.
“Here is a petition, and everyone who signed it is opposed to the quarry,” Brown said, handing a manila envelope to Wheeler. “This is our way of letting you know.”
Wheeler took the envelope, saying, “The comment period is closed.”
“Yes, during the holidays when everyone was away,” Brown said halfway down the aisle as she walked back to her seat. The comment period ended Jan. 5.
The petition Brown handed to Wheeler had 173 signatures of Yosemite Lakes Property owners, and read:
We the undersigned property owners of Yosemite Lakes Park strongly oppose the proposed quarry on Highway 41. Quarrying will adversely affect us by:
1) increasing traffic volume on Highway 41;
2) increasing pollution levels in the air and the aquifer;
3) reducing the availability of water to our wells;
4) impacting our quality of life;
5) (in bold lettering) decreasing our property values.
Brown admitted she isn’t sure on the aquifer issue (a layer of underground rock or sand which stores and carries water) since Wheeler said that the proposed site sits on strata, according to maps made by geologists.
A YLP property owner for 10 years, Brown said the names were collected in 10 days, and that if they had more time, there would have been more signatures.
Only one man refused to sign because, “they (the Board of Supervisors) are just going to do what they want to anyway, so it really doesn’t matter what we say.”
“The supervisors, as represented by Mr. Wheeler, are supposed to represent us, but aren’t taking our opinions into account. The comment period may be over, but we need to do something,” Brown continued. “I don’t see any reason why we should lie down and let them roll over us.”
She added that the Madera Oversight Coalition is strongly opposed to the Austin quarry, and has created an eight page informational booklet, showing a brief summary report on the quarry’s impact to water alone.
Another attendee stood at his seat, patiently waiting to be recognized by Wheeler.
“We need to know from you what your decision is before you cast the vote. You owe it to us.”
“I can’t do that,” Wheeler answered.
Remaining standing, the attendee said, “Why don’t you ask, by a showing of hands, who is for and who is against the quarry?”
Wheeler did so. The result was no hands raised in support of the quarry, while a majority of the 80 or so attendees, raised their hands in opposition.
“I’m not important and don’t hold a position of authority. I’m just a person who loves living here, and one of the nice things is the peace and quiet,” Brown continued. “If there’s a lot more traffic and more delays because of road widening outside of Fresno, it will affect tourism ... and that noise ... we will hear the blasting up here from that quarry. My aunt lived near a quarry when I was growing up, and there were afternoons when I heard one explosion after another.”
Other town hall topics included:
• Retired CDF captain and Firewise coordinator, Roger Maybee, emphasized the importance of homeowners and property owners taking responsibility for preventative clearance.
“To a fire, your home is nothing but fuel. Embers can fly for miles, and land on wood piles, on roofs, on pine needles in gutters, on anything combustible. The way to protect your home is to remove combustibles.”
Maybee made the offer of coming out to homes to assess for fire hazards.
• Cal Fire warned, because of the warm temperatures and even less rainfall to date than last year at this time, the potential is high for a worse fire season than what Mountain Area residents experienced in 2014.
“This year is drier than last year,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Chris Christopherson, said. “If you watch the roadsides, the grass is already starting to turn yellow. There are dead cedars, dead pines, and dead oaks - all fuel for fire.
“We got very lucky last year that no one died in a fire. We got lucky in Yosemite Lakes Park two years ago. With another drought year, our luck is going to run out eventually. Experts are predicting that the California summer is going to last 75 days longer than normal, and for the first time in our history, Cal Fire has been staffed all year long. We need to be alarmed.”
He reminded attendees to sign up for MC Alert ( MCAlert.org or 559-675-7770) and for those who clear their property, while neighbors don’t, Christopherson advised calling the area fire station to have someone come out for a spot check.
Ashley Smith, recycling manager for Emadco, explained letters are being sent to the mountain areas now mandated for garbage pick-up; Emadco will also provide a recyclying container to existing and new customers for cardboard, shredded paper, plastic containers - items that don’t need to add to the landfills.
The next Town Hall meeting will be held 6 p.m., Thursday, March 19, in the Raymond-Knowles Elementary School cafeteria.