Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mine, Ban on New Truck Traffic Approved

Ventura County 1st District Supervisor Steve Bennett, right, confers with Ojai Mayor Carol Smith and Stop the Trucks committee chair Michael Shapiro outside the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission hearing in Santa Maria on Wednesday.

By Linda Harmon

It was another marathon five-hour meeting before the Santa Barbara Planning Commission Wednesday in an attempt to clarify issues and make a final decision on the Troesh Diamond Rock Mine Conditional Use Permit.
An Ojai crowd of about 80 again filled the meeting room alongside residents of the Cuyama region to hear the Commission vote 4-to-1 in favor of approving the mine’s C.U.P. after attaching two new restrictive measures.
However, the project still holds the potential of sending 80,000-pound gravel trucks down scenic Highway 33 through one of the Ojai’s busiest intersections.
Measure 34 prohibits project-related truck trips through Ojai on State Route 33, and requires a public hearing and notification to both Ventura County and the City of Ojai if the ban is lifted in the future.
The second measure, 34c, places a limit on the number of truck trips that may ultimately occur on the highway if the ban is lifted. That limit remains at an average of 18 trips per day but can allow up to 138 trips per day during peak periods depending on how the current Ojai emission standards are applied. It would also restrict truck travel time before school, after school and at noon recess hours.
During the meeting a Troesh representative presented a letter dated July 3 to the commission stating that they intended to respect Ojai’s 5-pound emission limit and honor the restricted hours if the ban was lifted. Supervisor Steve Bennett then told the commission that he did not have sufficient time to review the letter and reserved comment until after he had completely evaluated it.
Michael Shapiro, one of the leaders of the Ojai-based Stop the Trucks organization, had a guarded reaction. “Even though the Planning Commission said there is a ban in effect, there is no teeth in it,” Shapiro said.
According to Shapiro there is too much flexibility and the ban can be ignored in case of an emergency. “Emergency was not defined,” continued Shapiro. “I’m not feeling comfortable that there really is a ban.”
Many remained skeptical of the project. Even though members of the audience were cautioned to speak only if they had new information to impart many did speak to raise what they felt were unanswered concerns. Shapiro took issue with the Caltrans traffic study, alleging, “The Caltrans report wasn‘t a study; it was a six-page conclusion with no real study involved. We want an independent study.”
Stan Greene said he was happy about the company’s agreement to ban its trucks from Ojai. He did, however, raise several issues that he said weakened the C.U.P. including its vagueness, lack of monitoring commitments, and failure to take into account the cumulative effects of other pending mining projects. Greene finished by saying, “CEQUA (California Environmental Quality Act) requires that environmentally superior alternatives be at least discussed.”
Cuyama speakers included pistachio rancher Gene Zannon, who echoed concerns of other area residents saying the mine would have major negative impacts on his largely rural farming and ranching community as well as sending traffic to Ojai.
“This is the biggest vote facing us since oil was discovered in terms of development and how it will transform our valley,” said Zannon. “They’re planning on drilling to 90 feet and the aquifer is at 40. Our wells are not that deep and I don’t have that much to play with.”
Representing the city, Ojai Mayor Carol Smith acknowledged the commission’s tough role but urged them to not approve the C.U.P.
Jeff Kuyper of Los Padres Forest Watch, and Gordon Hensley of CoastKeepers, both representatives of nonprofit environmental groups, attacked the EIR and Caltrans study.
The audience entreaties did not garner any support from the commission. Commissioners felt that all impacts had been adequately addressed, impacts mitigated by adding the two measures, and following staff’s recommendations they gave their approval to the conceptual review of the C.U.P.
"The reclamation portion of the document now goes to The California Department of Conservation's Office of Reclamation," said Steve Rodriguez, contract planner for the project. "They will study the plan and make comments. Then they return the document to us to work with the developer to address those comments. It will then be discussed again before the Santa Maria Planning Commission. It will appear on our agenda at that time."
After the meeting ended Bennett said he felt the truck controversy was an important and complicated issue. “That still needed to be worked out.”
“It’s time for the valley to roll up our sleeves, contribute, and get serious,” said Shapiro. “The city needs to get involved and contribute too if we want to keep the trucks out of Ojai. It’s going to be an uphill struggle and I think it’s going to end in litigation.”

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