Liberty Quarry plan vanishes amid $20 million settlement with tribe

A searing land use war that gripped the region for seven years ended abruptly Thursday, Nov. 15, with news that the Pechanga Indian tribe has spent $20.35 million to buy the site of a contentious gravel mine and prevent similar projects from taking shape in the Temecula area.

The stunning revelation initially came as a joint press release and in about two hours swelled into a hastily-arranged gathering of about 150 tribal leaders, local government officials, environmental activists and community and business leaders.

“This is a good day. It’s a very good day,” Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro said first in his native Luiseno language and then in English.

His remarks were peppered by applause, and he was soon followed to the lectern by several Riverside County and Temecula elected officials.

The euphoric speeches, handshakes and hugs seemed to mark a sudden demise to the hard-fought Liberty Quarry project. But the tribe’s purchase of the mine site and its agreement with the developer were in the works since July and it was the close of escrow earlier in the day that set the stage for the gathering, Macarro said.

The gathering took place on the top of one of the two parking garages that flank the tribe’s casino and hotel. The rooftop location provided a panoramic view of the Temecula Valley and the boulder-strewn hilltop between Temecula and Rainbow where the quarry was planned.

Pechanga officials – in a rare alliance with city and environmental leaders – had stated in public hearings that the hilly area is central to the tribe’s creation story. Macarro and other tribal officials have said the mountain, which he identified as “Pu’eska,” is sacred to the tribe, and allowing mining there would be similar to desecrating a cathedral, temple or other holy site.

He said protecting the mountain and the area’s quality of life was worth the years of work and millions of dollars spent by the tribe, city government and grassroots leaders.

“This was a cause worth fighting to the end for,” Macarro said. He thanked the mine developer, Watsonville-based Granite Construction Co., for selling the site to the tribe and for agreeing to help protect a 90-square-mile swath of land for the next 23 years.

In response, speakers and onlookers showered the tribe with praise.

“It’s a perfect end,” activist Jerri Arganda said as the event unfolded. “They’re the heroes.”

Kathleen Hamilton, an environmental leader who aggressively fought the quarry from the moment it was proposed, quipped to a reporter: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

No Granite officials spoke during the Thursday afternoon gathering. The company’s input was limited to the statements contained in a joint press release.

“Granite has a strong history of cooperation with stakeholders in communities where we work and is pleased to have been able to reach an equitable solution with the Pechanga tribe regarding this project,” James H. Roberts, the company’s president and chief executive, said in the release. “We remain committed to Western Riverside and San Diego counties and look forward to continuing to grow our business in this area.”

The deal called for the tribe to pay Granite $3 million to purchase the 354 acres that was the heart of the quarry plan. The tribe also agreed to pay Granite $17.35 million for key concessions that include agreeing to not own or operate a mine in a vast swath of land through the year 2035.

Numerous officials have described the mine plan as the most contentious development project to surface in the region in decades. The mine plan had numerous supporters, including leaders of some other cities, who cited the jobs and taxes the project would provide over several decades.

Conversely, project foes complained of potential health, air and water quality risks. Project foes, who included numerous Fallbrook and Rainbow residents, organized community rallies, aerial photographs, billboard campaigns and bus trips to Riverside hearings.

Granite submitted its application to Riverside County for the quarry project in 2005. It aimed to market the aggregate in San Diego and southwest Riverside counties. Company officials argued that it would cut air pollution by reducing the number of gravel-laden trucks that currently crisscross the region.

The project wound its way through a pair of county agencies and dozens of public hearings, several of them attended by 1,500 people or more.

The mine site is nestled behind a bluff overlooking a California Highway Patrol truck inspection and weigh station west of Interstate 15 near the San Diego County border.

Granite initially sought county approval to extract 270 million tons of sand, gravel and other materials over a 75-year period from a 155-acre portion of the site that totaled about 400 acres. Another nine acres would be used for a service road that would wind its way up the hill.

The mine site flanks a sensitive San Diego State University nature reserve and research station that is split by the Santa Margarita River, which forms at the confluence of several creeks in the Temecula area and flows 27 miles to the ocean. University leaders opposed the project and frequently participated in community gatherings and public hearings.

County supervisors cast a 3-2 vote in February to deny the project. The board then veered in another direction in May by approving the project’s environmental impact report. That triggered a lawsuit from Temecula. In July, Granite submitted a revised project application for a slightly smaller project. A subsequent county decision to review the revised plan under its fast-track process sparked a second lawsuit by the city.

Both lawsuits were pending and a final county hearing was expected soon when the purchase and settlement deal was announced on Thursday. The city of Temecula spent more than $1 million studying the project and fighting it at hearings and in court. Granite spent more than ten times that amount in planning and processing the plan and defending the county from the litigation.

The two county supervisors who represented the area and staunchly opposed the quarry spoke during Thursday’s event. Supervisor Bob Buster said the board will be glad to forgo further clashes over the project.

Stone praised Macarro and thanked the Pechanga tribe for reaching into its “deep pockets” to end the quarry showdown. Stone said the quarry triggered a “David and Goliath fight” and he joined Macarro in calling for changes in the way local governments evaluate the potential impacts of future development.

Temecula City Councilman Mike Naggar said he “felt the spirit of the mountain” as he listened to Macarro and reflected on the lengths that various groups went to fight a perceived threat.

“I think that’s going to change us forever,” he said.

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